Mastitis refers to an infection that develops in the breast tissue. It results in symptoms such as pain, warmth, redness and swelling of the affected breast. Some women with mastitis may also suffer from fever and chills. This condition mostly affects lactating women who breast feed their babies. In rare cases it may occur in non-lactating women as well. Usually mastitis develops in the initial three months after delivery of the child, although it can occur later on as well during breastfeeding. Mastitis can lead to considerable discomfort and can also make a woman feel tired. This may cause difficulty in caring for the child. In some cases, mastitis may cause a mother to wean her baby well before she intends to. It must be noted that even when mastitis occurs, a mother can continue to breast feed her baby.

Symptoms of Mastitis

Mastitis occurs due to infection by the bacteria known as staphylococcus aureus. The symptoms of mastitis are similar to those of a blocked milk duct or abscess of the breast. However milk duct blockages usually subside without intervention. The symptoms of mastitis may or may not be noticed during breastfeeding. The symptoms do not go away until an alteration is made in the breastfeeding method or by taking medication. Some common symptoms of mastitis include pain, swelling, itching, redness, heat and tenderness in the affected breast. A lump will also be felt in the breast and there may be nipple tenderness and discharge. The lymph nodes under the arm may also get swollen and tender. In many cases, flu like symptoms also develop.

Sometimes certain complications may occur due to mastitis and these require immediate medical attention. If left untreated, they could result in gangrene. The infection may also enter the bloodstream and lead to serious bacterial infection of the blood and failure of the vital organs. Signs and symptoms of serious mastitis complications include high fever, fainting, breathing difficulties, confusion and loss of consciousness.

Most women experience flu like symptoms well before they detect a lump or sore area on the breast. It is important to consult a doctor as soon as the first signs of illness are experienced. Oral antibiotics are effective in treating the condition. In case the medications do not bring about improvement after a couple of days, it is important to see a doctor again so that other complications may be ruled out. In some cases, mastitis results in the formation of an abscess. This can be a painful condition and must be treated early as the infection can spread to other parts of the body.

Causes of Mastitis

The bacteria, staphylococcus aureus, which is responsible for mastitis infection, is normally present on the skin, but it only causes infection when they penetrate the skin through cracks or tears. Mastitis occurs when bacteria enter through a crack in the nipple. The reason why the condition is so common in breastfeeding mothers is that the nipples tend to become dry and crack easily. A primary bacterial infection of the breast can also lead to mastitis. In some cases, even an overproduction of breast milk could cause mastitis. The condition is not contagious, but it is infectious. There has been no genetic link associated with mastitis.

There are certain risk factors that can make a woman more susceptible to mastitis. Mothers who wean their babies abruptly may suffer from the condition because this can cause engorgement. Infrequent breast feeding can also increase the risk of mastitis. The infection is also likely to occur when proper hygiene is not maintained during breastfeeding. Women who have dry and cracked nipples and those who suffer from another bacterial breast infection may also be at a higher risk of developing mastitis.

Remedies for Mastitis

Antibiotic medication is generally prescribed after the doctor evaluates the patient’s medical history and performs a physical examination. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between mastitis, blocked milk ducts and engorgement. In case of blocked ducts or engorgement, the pain is likely to subside on its own and there is usually no real need for medications. However, if it is mastitis, the symptoms may worsen. Mastitis infection is usually treated with oral antibiotic medication. These are effective in treating the condition as long as the complete course of medication is followed. Certain types of medications may result in side effects such as nausea, vomiting, gas, itching, skin rash and diarrhea. But these side effects are rare and do not cause harm to the baby during breastfeeding. It is important to seek treatment for mastitis immediately since an abscess may develop. An abscess is an accumulation of pus that requires surgical drainage.

Apart from medication, there are some methods of home care that provide relief from mastitis. The inflammation, swelling and pain can be greatly reduced by applying warm and cold compresses. Warmth helps to improve blood flow in the area and also aids in milk flow. Cold compresses help to soothe the discomfort. Massaging the affected breast is also an excellent way to unblock the ducts and relieve swelling. One should drink plenty of water in order to flush out the infection from the body. This also helps to keep the milk flow steady. At least 10 to 12 glasses of water should be consumed every day. Proper rest is also a must so that the body is able to recuperate and heal. In many cases, a woman may stop nursing her baby due to mastitis, but it should be pointed out that breastfeeding the baby regularly actually helps to improve the condition, as it empties the affected breast. If possible, the woman should attempt to nurse every couple of hours on the inflamed side.

Some women opt for alternative treatments for mastitis. One such natural remedy is to place cold cabbage leaves over the affected breast. The raw leaves are believed to help extract the infection and are said to be effective in reducing inflammation and pain. Once the leaves reach room temperature, they can be removed and replaced with more leaves. A paste made with calendula flowers and comfrey leaves is also beneficial in treating mastitis. The paste may be warmed slightly and applied to the inflamed breast three to four times daily. Tincture of Echinacea root is another natural remedy for mastitis. The tincture may be applied to the infected area 4 to 5 times every day. Some women also opt for acupuncture to relieve the swelling and discomfort caused by mastitis. Some of the other plants and herbs known to be beneficial in treating mastitis include belladonna, which helps to reduce throbbing pain and heat in the nipples; cleavers, which aid in decreasing swelling; prickly ash, which boosts the immune system; bryonia, which is beneficial for heavy swollen breasts and pulsatilla, which reduces soreness of the nipples.

Mastitis can be prevented by wearing comfortable loose clothing that does not cause friction against the nipples. Tight fitted tops should be avoided as they restrict blood flow. Breastfeeding mothers should also ensure that they wear well fitting nursing bras. Good hygiene helps to reduce the risk of mastitis and hence nursing mothers should keep the nipple area clean and dry between feedings. While nursing, it is important to ensure that the baby latches on properly to the breast. This will enable the infant to obtain a sufficient quantity of milk and problems of blockage will not occur. Nursing mothers should also ensure complete drainage of the breasts by changing the baby’s position during each feeding. Milk that is left behind in the breasts can lead to clogging and pressure. Engorgement of the breasts should be avoided by nursing the baby every four hours in the initial weeks after birth. If engorgement occurs, the breast needs to be drained immediately through breastfeeding or with a breast pump. Engorgement and problems of inflammation in the breasts can also be avoided by weaning the baby gradually. A slower process will enable the body to adjust gradually and this prevents blockage and infection. Gradual weaning is also less stressful for the baby. Nursing mothers require proper rest. Inadequate sleep and poor rest during the day can make the immune system weak and more vulnerable to infection. Some amount of stress is bound to occur as the birth of a baby brings with it a great deal of responsibility. Therefore it is all the more important for new mothers to get adequate rest. While sleeping it is better to avoid lying on the stomach as this can affect the milk flow in the breasts.

Diet for Mastitis

There is no specific diet for mastitis. But it is advisable to eat foods that boost immunity as this increases the body’s resistance to bacterial infections. The body is better able to fight infections when there is a good supply of vitamins A, B, C and E. Cranberry juice helps to restrict bacterial infections, which is why it may be a good idea to include it in your diet. To increase immunity, probiotic foods should be consumed.

Suggestion for Mastitis

It is advisable to be careful when using creams and lotions on the breasts as some of them may actually contribute to mastitis. 
Mastitis - Frequently asked questions