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Mastitis is a common breast infection that mostly affects lactating or breastfeeding women, especially during the initial six weeks after childbirth. (1)(2) Nonlactating women and men are less prone to this infection, but they can develop it nonetheless. (3)
Mastitis is quite discomforting, although it does not pose any serious risk to your health or that of your baby. This article will list some things you can do at home to make the infection go away faster and relieve its symptoms.
Home Remedies for Breast Infection (Mastitis)
Here are a few home remedies and nonmedical interventions that can help relieve the symptoms associated with mastitis and promote quick recovery:
1. Apply warm and cold compresses
Applying warm and cold compress over the infected breast one after the other can help reduce the underlying inflammation and soothe the associated symptoms such as pain, pain, swelling, and itching. (4)
The heat penetrates through the skin and stimulates blood circulation, relieving the tissue inflammation. Meanwhile, topical cold helps numb the nerve endings in the area, making it less painful, but this only lasts for a short duration.
However, there still isn’t enough scientific evidence to conclusively establish the efficacy of this technique for alleviating breast discomfort. More studies are needed to confirm these claims. (5)
How to use:
- Take a hot water bottle and wrap a thin towel around it to make a warm compress.
- Apply this warm compress to the infected area for no more than 15 minutes.
- Wrap a couple of ice cubes in a thin towel to make a cold compress.
- Place the cold compress over the infected breast for no more than 5 minutes.
- Repeat this complete process 2–3 times at a go, and use this remedy as needed.
2. Perform a gentle massage
Massaging the breast provides topical stimulation, which increases blood circulation under the skin. This helps curb inflammation in the breast tissue and thereby relieve the pain, swelling, and tenderness caused by it.
Plus, a gentle massage also helps empty the duct of any leftover milk (6) and facilitates the movement of lymph fluid throughout the body. Lymph fluid carries white blood cells and other disease-fighting agents that help fight infections such as mastitis.
How to do:
Massage the breasts using circular or smooth straight motions, but make sure to do it slowly and with minimal pressure.
3. Try using cabbage leaves
Covering your engorged breasts with cold cabbage leaves for some time may help relieve the pain, swelling, and stiffness associated with this condition. The cold temperature numbs the underlying nerves temporarily to make you feel less pain.
Cabbage is also known to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties that help relieve inflammation in the area and thus facilitate proper milk flow. (7) There is some anecdotal and evidential support for this remedy, (5) but more large-scale rigorous studies need to be conducted to confirm these claims. (8)
How to use:
- Wash the cabbage leaves properly and then stack them in the fridge for some time.
- Place the chilled cabbage leaves over your breasts leaving your nipples uncovered, and wear a sports bra on top to keep them in place.
- Keep them on for at least 2 hours or until they wilt.
4. Use aloe vera
The cool soothing nature of aloe vera gel can help relieve the symptomatic discomfort caused by breast infection. Due to its rich antioxidant content, aloe gel works as a strong anti-inflammatory agent that can help bring down the pain, soreness, itching, redness, and swelling in the infected area.
How to use:
- Cut open a fresh clean aloe vera leaf and extract its gel.
- Apply the aloe vera gel directly to the infected area.
- Let it dry.
- Wash it off with lukewarm water.
- Do this regularly until you find relief.
5. Consume garlic
Garlic is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) as a food flavoring by the US Food and Drug Administration, including during lactation. (11)
Garlic and its extracts have been used to treat infections for thousands of years on account of its various medicinal properties. (12) No wonder its antibacterial and antiseptic effects can also be utilized for healing breast infections.
How to use:
- Start your day by consuming 2 raw garlic cloves on an empty stomach.
- If you are not averse to its taste, consider eating a few more throughout the day.
- If you find raw garlic to be too unpalatable, consider blending it with your orange juice or in plain water to cut down its pungency.
- Do this daily for a week.
6. Use turmeric topically
One study found turmeric to be quite effective in reducing mastitis-associated symptoms such as breast pain, swelling, and redness within 3 days of using it topically with no reported side effects. (13)
However, it was a relatively small study and needs to be corroborated by more large-scale human trials to confirm these effects.
How to use:
Apply a turmeric-based cream or lotion to the infected area twice a day.
Causes of Breast Infection
The female body undergoes a lot of hormonal and biological upheaval during and immediately after pregnancy.
For instance, the mammary glands start to secrete milk, which is known as lactation. This milk is stored in the breasts, making them sore, swollen, and tender.
Breast milk is ejected through a duct that has an opening in the nipple. Poor drainage of the breast milk can lead to its accumulation inside the duct, causing breast engorgement. The milk that stagnates inside the milk duct invites bacterial growth, triggering an infection.
The skin covering the breast and nipple is naturally populated by certain microbes, including the Staphylococci aureus bacteria. These skin-dwelling bacteria are harmless so long as they remain on the surface and are not allowed to overgrow.
However, these bacteria can get transferred into the teat or any tear in the nipple caused by multiple breastfeeding sessions and subsequently infiltrate the breast tissue. (14)
The warm and moist environment inside the breast is ideal for these bacteria to grow rapidly, eventually leading to an infection. More so if the mother goes a long time without expelling the milk or if the milk is not expelled properly and stagnates in the duct.
New breastfeeding mothers who produce a lot of breast milk have a higher risk of contracting mastitis, as do those who wear tight or dirty bras.
Meanwhile, women who are not breastfeeding and men can develop this infection on account of the following factors:
- Smoking tobacco releases certain toxins in the body that can damage the breast tissue.
- Getting a nipple piercing can create tears in the surrounding skin.
- Eczema patches over the breasts or nipple can make the skin in the area quite dry, thin, and itchy. Incessantly or vigorously scratching the skin can make it tear easily and allow entry to infection-causing germs.
- Getting a breast implant can introduce germs into the breast tissue and trigger an infection.
- People who have weak immunity due to ailments such as diabetes or medications that suppress the immune system are more susceptible to this infection.
- Shaving or plucking out hair from around your nipples can tear or damage the underlying skin.
Symptoms of a Breast Infection
Mastitis is characterized by the following symptoms:
- The infected breast becomes partially or completely red, sore, and swollen.
- The infected breast is warm and tender to touch.
- A burning or stinging sensation is felt while breastfeeding.
- The infected breast becomes painful.
- Fever may arise.
- In rare cases, a pustular swollen abscess may form in the infected breast tissue and discharge fluid from the nipple.
The typical onset of these symptoms is between the first and fifth week after childbirth, but they can occur anytime during breastfeeding.
Treatment for Breast Infections
Patients should be encouraged to continue to breastfeed, pump, or hand-express even during the breast infection.
The standard treatment for breast infections is a prescribed course of antibiotics such as cephalexin, clindamycin, dicloxacillin, or sometimes erythromycin.
Pain and swelling are managed with cold compresses and pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen.
Diagnosing a Breast Infection
Breast infections are generally diagnosed through a physical examination that aims to look for signs of inflammation and nipple damage.
The doctor will check the breasts to see if they are unusually swollen, tight, red, warm, and tender to the touch. Plus, blood pressure, body temperature, and pulse rate may also be recorded.
If doctors suspect that the symptoms are stemming from some other serious underlying illness such as cancer, they often order an ultrasound or biopsy to rule out that risk. (15)
Lifestyle Changes for Breast Infection
Making certain changes in your day-to-day activities can help manage and improve breast infection.
1. Try relaxation therapy
New mothers have a lot on their plate as looking after a baby is a 24/7 job with erratic sleep schedules and frequent bouts of crying. Too much stress has an impact on their overall body. It also adversely affects the production and ejection of breast milk.
As discussed earlier, incomplete emptying of the milk duct can pave the way for infection. One way to prevent this is to adopt relaxation therapy as a means to calm the mind and thereby the breast muscles to facilitate proper milk release. (16)
To that end, you can practice deep breathing, yoga, and meditation; connect with nature through gardening, hiking, or just walking in the park; listen to soothing music; rekindle your hobbies; or simply do pleasurable things that relieve your stress and anxiety.
2. Exercise dietary control
Limiting the intake of tea, coffee, chocolate, and carbonated soft drinks while consuming a low-fat diet high in vitamins and fiber was found to be useful in reducing the severity, duration, and overall occurrence of mastitis.
3. Wear well-fitting sports bras
Properly fitting sports bras help support the swollen breast muscles and relieve the pain caused by mastitis. (17)
4. Feed from the infected breast more often
Expressing milk from the affected breast helps clear the milk duct completely to prevent or curb the growth of infection-causing bacteria. (18)
5. Drink plenty of fluids
A well-hydrated body is better equipped at fighting infections. So, be mindful of your fluid intake. Keep a 1-liter bottle of water with you and keep sipping at frequent intervals. Refill and do the same throughout the day.
6. Stretch and move
Staying physically active gets your lymph fluid moving. Proper lymph drainage is an important requirement for clearing infections from the body.
Self-Care and Prevention Against Breast Infections
Here are a few measures that can help prevent mastitis:
- Wash your nipples and hands before nursing to minimize the risk of transmitting germs into the milk duct.
- Make sure to draw out the milk from both your breasts when they start to feel full. Regular emptying of the milk ducts through breastfeeding, hand expression, or pumping is a prerequisite for avoiding and curing mastitis. (19)
- Don’t feed the baby in the same position every time.
- Make sure that the baby is actually feeding while suckling and not using the breast as a pacifier. Prolonged suckling can damage the nipple and increase the risk of mastitis.
Complications Associated With Mastitis
Poor or delayed treatment can cause mastitis to spread deeper into the tissue and form an abscess filled with pus that oozes out of the nipple. If you don’t complete the prescribed course of antibiotics, the infection may recur and further block proper milk drainage from the breasts.
When to See a Doctor
Consult your doctor if the mastitis symptoms persist for more than a week, despite taking the prescribed course of antibiotics and other home treatments. In such a case, you may need to undergo a skin biopsy to rule out the risk of breast cancer.
You should act quickly in this regard since breast cancer tends to metastasize quickly.
Mastitis is essentially caused by incomplete drainage of breast milk that builds up inside the duct, creating a warm and humid environment for bacteria to grow.
So, the most important thing to avoid this infection is to take out your breast milk regularly via pumping, hand expression, or breastfeeding. Even if you do develop mastitis, continue doing so to eliminate the infection.
In many cases, expressing the milk is all it takes to clear the infection in a matter of 2–3 days. If the infection persists, consult your doctor for the required antibiotic treatment. Along with medication, you can try the above-listed home remedies and self-care tips to manage the symptoms and facilitate a quick recovery.