Mastitis occurs when breast tissue gets inflamed. It is a common problem during breastfeeding. You can look after mastitis yourself, but you may need antibiotics if the tissue becomes infected.
Types of mastitis
About 1 in 5 breastfeeding women in Australia develop mastitis during the first 6 months after giving birth.
Mastitis usually develops because a milk duct has become blocked, causing the milk to build up. Some of the milk behind the blocked duct may be forced into the surrounding breast tissue. This causes the tissue to become swollen or inflamed.
Mastitis can also be caused by a cracked nipple allowing bacteria to enter the breast tissue.
Mastitis usually affects one breast at a time. Symptoms of mastitis may include:
- breast pain
- a red and swollen area on the breast
- flu-like symptoms – headache, joint ache, fever and chills
- a tender, red lump in the breast from a blocked milk duct
Symptoms often start suddenly.
As soon as you feel a lump or sore spot in your breast, take action:
Drain the breast often: Keep the sore breast as empty as possible by breastfeeding on demand. Breastfeeding helps to drain the milk and relieve symptoms. If necessary, express a small amount of milk between feeds until your breasts feel comfortable. Don’t miss or delay breastfeeds.
Make sure your baby is latched on correctly: Your midwife, lactation consultant or child health nurse can advise you about breastfeeding techniques.
Massage your breast gently during breastfeeding: Massage can help to drain any blocked ducts.
Rest as much as possible: Get help and support from your partner, family and friends.
Apply warmth to the sore area: Use a heat pack or a warm towel on your affected breast for up to 5 minutes before feeding or expressing to help clear any blocked milk ducts.
Use a cold pack on the sore area after breastfeeding: This can help relieve breast pain.
Keep comfortable: Ensure your bra or clothing is not too tight to avoid pressure on your breasts.
Visit the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website for more breastfeeding advice.
Things that can increase your risk of mastitis include:
- your baby not latching on or not being positioned on the breast correctly
- your baby having a tongue-tie (a condition where a thin piece of skin under the baby’s tongue restricts tongue movement) or other problems causing difficulties with breastfeeding
- having breasts that are too full (breast engorgement)
- stopping breastfeeding too quickly
- wearing a bra that is too tight, which can increase the risk of blocked ducts
- previously having had mastitis
When to seek help
If you don’t start to feel better after one day, or if you are feeling very unwell, see your doctor. If you are prescribed antibiotics, make sure you finish the course.
Mastitis should be promptly treated to prevent breast abscess (a painful collection of pus), which is a rare complication. If you have a breast abscess, you will probably need antibiotics and to have the pus drained with a special needle.
The above self-care measures can also help to prevent mastitis. You should also alternate from which breast you begin each feed. This will help ensure that each breast is drained at least every second feed.
Support services are available to help with breastfeeding your baby and for your overall physical and emotional health. Speak to your doctor, maternal and child health nurse or a counsellor from the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). The ABA National Breastfeeding Helpline (1800 686 268) is available 7 days a week.
For more information about mastitis or breastfeeding, visit the Australian Breastfeeding Association website.
Last reviewed: May 2018