What is mastitis?
Mastitis is usually the result of a blocked milk duct that hasn't cleared. Some of the milk banked up behind the blocked duct can be forced into nearby breast tissue, causing the tissue to become inflamed. The inflammation is called mastitis. Infection may or may not be present.
If you think you have mastitis, see your doctor.
What are the symptoms?
Early symptoms of mastitis can make you feel as if you are getting the flu. You may begin to get shivers and aches.
Some mothers who do not have any early signs of a blocked duct get mastitis 'out of the blue'.
The breast will be sore like it is with a blocked duct, only worse. It is usually red and swollen, hot and painful. The skin may be shiny and there may be red streaks. You will feel ill. It is common for the ill feeling to come on very quickly.
What can I do?
Start treatment as soon as you feel a lump or sore spot in your breast.
Drain the breast often, but gently.
This is not the time to wean. More than anything else, your breasts need to be kept as empty as possible. Your baby's sucking is the best way to do this. The milk is quite safe for your baby to drink.
Feed more often than usual, starting each feed on the sore breast. Let your baby suck long enough on this side to make sure that it is being drained well. However, take care not to let the other breast become too full, as it may cause a similar problem in that breast.
Check that your baby is getting the milk - that is, the let-down reflex is working soon after s/he begins to suck. When your let-down happens, you may notice tingling feelings in your breasts, a sudden feeling of fullness or milk leaking from your other breast. Your baby's sucking pattern will change and s/he will start to gulp or swallow more often. Make sure your baby is attached well and that you are relaxed and comfortable to help the let-down reflex work.
There are ways of helping the breast to 'empty' or drain more easily:
- Ensure your baby is positioned and attached to your breast
- Make sure your bra is very loose or take it off.
- Relax while you feed to help your milk flow.
- Make a special effort to relax your arms, legs, back, shoulders and neck.
- Breathe deeply and evenly.
- Listen to soothing music and think about your baby to help start the let-down reflex.
- Changing feeding positions might help to clear the blockage.
- Gently massage the breast by stroking toward the nipple while your baby feeds.
- Hand express to 'empty' the breast if your baby won't suck. If you have mastitis, your milk may taste salty. This won't harm your baby, but may cause him to refuse the breast.
Apply warmth and cold
Using COLD packs on the affected breast can help reduce swelling and relieve pain.
Use WARMTH only sparingly and just before a feed (for up to a few minutes) can help trigger your let-down to help clear the blockage and may relieve pain.
Some sources of warmth:
- Have a warm shower.
- Use a heat pack (wheat packs that you heat in the microwave oven work well), well-covered hot water bottle, warm hand towel or a face washer wrung out in hot water.
Rest, adequate fluids and nutrition
It is important to get as much rest as possible as well as adequate fluids and nutrition when you have mastitis. Stay in bed if you can, or at least put your feet up for most of the day. If you do go to bed, take your baby, supplies for changing nappies and your own food and drinks with you, so you don't have to keep getting up. If you have other children, it may be better to lie down in your living area.
Seek medical help
See a doctor after a few hours if you don't start to feel better or straight away if you feel very unwell. If you are prescribed antibiotics, make sure you finish the course. Some mothers may get a thrush infection after a course of antibiotics, so if you have had thrush in the past, discuss this with your doctor. When mastitis is not treated promptly, a breast abscess may form, although this is uncommon.
A summary of things to do to help relieve mastitis
START TREATMENT STRAIGHT AWAY
- Rest as much as you can
- Keep the sore breast as empty as possible by feeding your baby often
- Apply warmth to the sore breast for up to a few minutes before a feed
- Feed from the sore breast first, when your baby's sucking is stronger
- Massage the breast gently while your baby feeds
- Talk to an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor for ideas on other feeding positions
- Hand express if needed, before, after and between feeds
- Cold packs after a feed may help relieve pain and reduce swelling
- Breastfeed often. Hand express if your breast feels full and your baby won't feed often
Early treatment will mean you get better faster, you will feel less ill and you will be at less risk of a breast abscess.
- Ensure your baby is attaching well to your breasts and feeding well
- Breastfeed your baby as often as your baby wants to feed
- Avoid missing or putting off feeds
- If a breast becomes uncomfortably full, wake your baby for a feed. If your baby is not interested in feeding, you may like to express a small amount for comfort
- Avoid putting pressure on your breasts eg with clothing or with your fingers while feeding
- Rest as much as you can
- Alternate from which breast you begin each feed. This can help ensure at least one breast gets drained well at every second feed
- Avoid giving your baby any other fluids except your breastmilk, unless medically advised to
See the Royal Women's Hospital mastitis clinical guideline, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine mastitis protocol and page 43 of the National Health and Medical Research Council's Infant Feeding Guidelines.
The information in this website article has been taken from the ABA booklet Breastfeeding: breast and nipple care and does not replace advice from your health care providers.
Breastfeeding: breast and nipple care
Breastfeeding: Breast and Nipple Care tells you what to expect as your breasts change during pregnancy and briefly covers how breastfeeding works.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed April 2021