Mastitis is commonly called breast infection and it refers to any infection that affects the breast tissues. Mastitis is normally caused by the staphylococcus aureus bacteria that are present on normal skin. The bacteria enter breast tissues through a crack in the skin (normally the nipple) after surgery or an injury.
The fatty tissues of the breasts get infected and inflamed. This inflammation presses on the milk ducts causing lumps and pain of the infected breast. Mastitis occurs usually in breastfeeding women and sometimes due to the presence of a rare form of breast cancer. This is called inflammatory breast cancer and it presents similar symptoms to breast infections.
A breast abscess is also a form of mastitis and is rarer than the common breast infection. It happens when pus collects in the breasts. An abscess forms when breast infections are not treated promptly.
Women with AIDS, chronic illness, impaired immune system or diabetes are more susceptible to mastitis.
Symptoms of Mastitis
Breast enlargement: One mastitis symptom is when the infected breast gets enlarged. Breast enlargement happens when the breasts become larger than their normal size and feel tender.
Breast lump: When small swellings occur on normal breast tissue, these are called lumps. Breast lumps come at all ages. In women with mastitis, breast lumps are formed due to injury when bacteria infect the breast tissue. Lumps usually feel hard when touched.
Pain: The patient experiences pain or discomfort in the infected breast. It is usually a dull ache and the breast will feel tender to touch. Sometimes the pain can be continuous and at other times only occur when you breastfeed.
Fever: Temperature will increase due to the infection. Patients with mastitis experience flu-like symptoms with a high temperature of > 100.4F, shivering and chills, fatigue, nausea and vomiting and a general feeling of malaise.
Itching: This causes an irritation of the skin that makes you feel the urge to scratch the specific area.
Nipple changes: The sensation in the nipples change and the patient can have a pus-like discharge from the nipple. Often, pus is an indication that the infection has advanced and an abscess maybe formed in the breast. The pus could have streaks of blood or white.
Swelling: If the breasts start building up fluid in the tissues, they can get swollen. The breast also looks red, feels warm, hot and tender to the touch.
Swollen Lymph nodes: Lymph nodes are present throughout the body. They are an integral part of the immune system and fight infections. One of the mastitis symptoms is swollen lymph nodes in the armpit located on the side of the infected breast. This happens when the lymph nodes get infected. They enlarge and become tender.
What to do?
Mastitis normally affects one breast. If you experience mastitis symptoms especially tender and swollen lymph nodes under the armpit, breast tissue feeling tender, swollen and appearing red and if you develop a high fever while breastfeeding, visit your doctor at once.
Make a note of all your symptoms, a list of all medications you are taking and other medical records if you have any. The doctor can diagnose this condition immediately and start the appropriate treatment.
Treatment of Mastitis
The doctor will first check if you are breastfeeding. If you do, then you need to demonstrate your feeding technique to ensure it is not wrong. If you are not breastfeeding, the doctor will conduct other tests to rule out other breast infections.
Breast milk sample maybe tested if the patient has severe mastitis, repeated episodes or the treatment given has not improved mastitis symptoms. Testing breast milk can identify the bacteria that are causing the infection and therefore help the doctor use the right medications.
The course of treatment depends on the type of mastitis and severity of symptoms. For non-infectious mastitis, patients will be advised to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, take simple painkillers, and wear loose fitting clothes and bra until symptoms improve or use a warm compress over the infected breast to ease the pain.
Patients will also be taught the right breastfeeding techniques, if this is the cause of the mastitis.
If the patient has infectious mastitis, the non-infectious mastitis treatment will be combined with a course of antibiotics. The antibiotics given will depend on whether you are breastfeeding to ensure it does not harm the baby. A topical cream may be prescribed to ease the sensation of sore nipples that must be applied only after feeding.
If mastitis has caused a breast abscess, it may be surgically drained and antibiotics prescribed to control the infection and heal the wound.
Mastitis : Prevention and Precaution
Some simple precautions can reduce the risk of contracting mastitis symptoms. These include taking special care of the nipples to ensure they do not crack, get injured and to prevent any irritation. Feed your baby often to prevent breasts from getting engorged. If breast milk accumulates, you can pump it out. Follow proper breast feeding technique such as posture, good latching by your infant etc. wean your baby from breastfeeding over a number of weeks rather than suddenly.
To relieve pain, you can use a warm compress or a warm bath. In some women, a cold compress can provide relief and comfort. Do not use the cold compress before feeding for milk flow can reduce. There are other ways to prevent mastitis from occurring. Breast feed equally from both breasts, take a lot of fluids to avoid dehydration, follow hygienic practices like washing your hands before breastfeeding and keep your baby clean. Remember, you can continue to breast feed even if this was the cause for mastitis as long as you follow proper breastfeeding techniques.
It is best not to take even over-the-counter medications without consulting your doctor – especially if you are a nursing mother. Any medication can have an adverse effect on your baby. So, if symptoms persist, check with your doctor again and get the right treatment, for mastitis can be completely cured.