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Breast infections: What to know

A breast infection occurs when bacteria invade the breast, resulting in inflammation. Inflammation of the breast is called mastitis.

While many people associate this condition with breastfeeding, people who are not breastfeeding can also get breast infections.

This article will explore breast infections in more detail, including their symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.


Woman with flu like symptoms caused by breast infection
Symptoms of breast infection can include a fever, flu-like symptoms, and nausea.

In some cases, a person with a breast infection may notice an infected lesion on the surface of the breast. Other times, pain deep in the breast might indicate an infection.

Breast infection symptoms can include:

  • the breast feeling hot to the touch
  • cracked or damaged nipples
  • a fever
  • flu-like symptoms, including body aches and feeling tired
  • nausea
  • pain in the breast
  • red streaks on the breast
  • sores on the breast that will not heal

Some people may develop ulcers on their skin, which may leak pus or blood.

Types and causes

There are several types of breast infection, which include:

  • Central or subareolar infection, which occurs when the milk ducts become infected or inflamed with an abscess. This infection is most likely to develop in people who smoke tobacco. In addition to experiencing symptoms on both breasts, it is common to notice nipple changes, such as nipple retraction or unusual discharge.
  • Granulomatous lobular mastitis, which can cause a painful but noncancerous mass to develop in the breast. People with this breast condition may have problems treating the infection with antibiotics.
  • Peripheral, nonlactating infection, which most commonly occurs in people with existing medical conditions, such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. Those who have a history of breast trauma or take steroids are also at greater risk. This type of infection often leads to inflammation or a visible abscess on the breast.
  • Skin infection, such as cellulitis. Possible causes of skin infection include sebaceous cysts, which are cysts that grow on oil-producing glands. People with large breasts or those with a history of breast surgery or radiotherapy have a higher risk of this infection.

Mastitis is more common during breastfeeding because a woman may experience nipple cracking that can introduce bacteria into the breast.

Also, a milk duct can become clogged due to incomplete breast emptying or excess pressure on the breast. Clogged milk ducts allow bacteria to multiply, which can lead to an infection.


A doctor will ask about a person’s symptoms and whether they are breastfeeding, have a history of breast trauma, or have ever had surgery or treatments on the breast.

The doctor will also ask about additional symptoms, such as a fever, chills, or fatigue. They may physically examine the breast and nipple too.

In some instances, they may take a culture or swab of breast discharge to determine the type of bacteria growing in the breast. Knowing the type of bacteria can help a doctor prescribe the right medication.


Doctor speaking with her patient
A doctor may prescribe antibiotics if bacteria have caused the infection.

The treatment for a breast infection often depends on the underlying cause and the severity of the symptoms.

If a person has a breast abscess, a doctor may recommend draining the abscess.

A doctor will usually prescribe antibiotics if the infection is due to bacteria. Typically, symptoms will start to improve within 1–2 days of treatment.

People should always take the full course of antibiotics, even if they start to feel better before completing treatment.

In rare instances, a person may require surgery to remove a damaged duct to keep the infection from returning.

However, surgery is a last resort when taking antibiotics and draining the cyst are ineffective.

Home remedies

A person can use a variety of home remedies to minimize the pain and discomfort of the infection.

Home remedies include:

  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Drinking plenty of fluids and resting whenever possible.
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothing and avoiding tight bras.

If a woman’s breast infection is due to breastfeeding, she can take the following steps to reduce discomfort and minimize the likelihood of the infection coming back:

  • Continuing to breastfeed unless a doctor says otherwise. A woman will not pass the infection on to a baby.
  • Using the infected breast first when breastfeeding to ensure that it empties. However, if this is too painful, a woman may begin with the opposite breast. She can then switch to the affected one afterward, when the baby’s sucking motion may be gentler.
  • Applying warm, moist compresses to the painful breast.
  • Trying to adopt different positions during breastfeeding so that the breast can empty. A lactation consultant can sometimes help with identifying alternative body positions or other ways to facilitate breastfeeding.
  • Massaging the areas of the breast that feel hard with gentle pressure while breastfeeding. This massage can help prevent the duct from clogging.

If a person’s symptoms do not improve with antibiotics and OTC treatments, they should talk to a doctor.

People should also see a doctor if they have red streaks that originate on the breast and extend to the underarm or if blood or pus is present in breast milk.


A breast infection can occur due to breastfeeding, or it can be the result of injuries or damage to the breast.

Anyone who suspects that they have an infection should see a doctor, who can provide antibiotics or drain an abscess.

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