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Sore nipples are a common discomfort that affects almost all women at some point in their life for different reasons.
In most cases, it is benign, mild, and manageable. However, it can sometimes be a sign of a more serious underlying problem such as a breast infection or cancer. This article will share all you need to know about sore nipples and how to treat them.
Home Remedies to Relieve Sore Nipples
Here are a few remedies that can help relieve sore nipples:
1. Breast milk
Breastfeeding women can simply apply their own expressed milk to the sore nipples for quick relief with no side effects.
The best thing is that this remedy costs nothing and is readily available any time. (1)
How to use:
- Apply a few drops of breast milk to your sore nipples before and after breastfeeding.
- Let it air-dry.
2. Warm water compress
Applying a warm compress to the sore nipples can help bring down the underlying inflammation to ease the pain and tenderness. (2)
The gentle heat stimulates blood circulation under the skin, which helps relax the breast muscles and facilitate better milk release and faster healing.
One systemic review demonstrated the effectiveness of this intervention for relieving sore nipples when used along with other home treatments. (2)
How to use:
- Soak a clean washcloth in warm water and wring out the excess liquid.
- Place the damp cloth over your breasts for a few minutes, at least 10 minutes before breastfeeding.
- Do this multiple times a day until the soreness subsides for good.
3. Chamomile tea bags
Chamomile tea bags soaked in hot water can also be used as a warm compress to soothe sore nipples (2) and with added benefits.
Chamomile is a medicinal plant that is known to promote wound healing and can therefore help repair your cracked and bleeding nipples. It is full of antioxidants that help repair the damaged nipple skin and curb the underlying inflammation, thus providing comfort. (3)
How to use:
- Dip a few chamomile tea bags in hot water for a few minutes.
- Let them cool down a little so that they are safe for application.
- Press the tea bags to squeeze out the excess water, and place them all over your nipples for a few minutes.
Note: After using this remedy, always remember to wash your nipples before breastfeeding.
4. Cold compress
Applying a cold compress to your sore nipples can help numb the area for a while to make you feel less pain. (4)
The cool temperature shrinks the underlying blood vessels, which limits blood flow in the area. This has a desensitizing effect on the nerve endings and also curbs inflammation.
Less inflammation means your breast muscles will loosen up and expel milk more smoothly.
How to use:
- Wrap a few ice cubes in a clean and thin towel to make an ice pack. Place the ice pack on the sore nipples for no more than 10 minutes at a stretch.
- Alternatively, refrigerate a couple of cabbage leaves after washing them, and then apply the chilled leaves to your nipples for a few minutes. (5)
Use any of these two remedies a few times daily between feedings.
Marigold (Calendula officinalis) is a healing herb rich in flavonoids that are credited with strong anti-inflammatory effects. When applied to your sore nipples, they help relieve the stiffness and pain. (2)
How to use:
- Crush 1–2 calendula flowers/leaves thoroughly to make a paste.
- Add equal amounts of olive oil to the crushed leaves for added benefits (optional).
- Apply the paste to your sore nipple and wait for it to dry on its own.
6. Aloe vera gel
Aloe vera gel is another skin-healing agent that can help soothe your sore nipples. It is loaded with antioxidants that help curb inflammation while promoting skin repair.
This deeply hydrating gel was found more effective than lanolin ointment/cream in relieving sore nipples. (6)
How to use:
Extract the gel from a freshly cut aloe leaf and gently massage it all over your nipples.
7. Olive oil massage
Massaging your sore nipples with olive oil can help ease the pain and inflammation associated with this condition. It lubricates the skin of your nipples to render it more elastic and less prone to cracking during breastfeeding. (7)
Plus, the massaging movement increases blood circulation in the area and thus relieves the pain and inflammation. It also relaxes the tense breast muscles to facilitate better movement of milk through the breast duct and out of the nipple.
How to use:
- Heat a small amount of the oil of your choice in a microwave until warm.
- Apply the warm oil to your nipples and then gently massage them.
- Repeat several times a day.
Causes Behind Sore Nipples
Sore nipples are generally attributed to hormonal changes, which may be triggered by the menstrual cycle, sexual activity, or pregnancy.
Still, there are several other probable causes. Here are some of the most common ones:
- The leading culprit behind sore nipples is improper breastfeeding. This includes positioning the baby in the wrong way while nursing such that their mouth is unable to latch on to the nipple properly. In such a case, the suckling causes tissue damage in and around the nipple and leads to low expression of breast milk, which then builds up inside the breast duct and causes inflammation that leads to sore nipples. The warm and moist engorged milk duct provides the perfect environment for bacteria to breed and cause an infection, which also triggers inflammation that causes sore nipples. (1)(8)(9)(10)
- Another breastfeeding mistake that can lead to sore nipples is abruptly pulling the breast from the baby’s mouth to stop nursing. The sudden and forceful removal can damage the nipple area, causing fissures and leading to pain and soreness. Safe to say, sore nipples are a major issue for lactating women as they can make breastfeeding quite a painful experience.
- Wearing an ill-fitted or tight bra that constantly rubs against the breasts can cause skin irritation.
- Certain skin conditions and allergies can also cause dryness and inflammation in and around the nipples.
- Using harsh chemical-based creams and products on the breasts can dry out, irritate, and even crack the skin over and around the nipples.
- Tender and painful nipples can also be a sign of breast infection called mastitis (11) and breast cancer.
Symptoms Associated With Sore Nipples
Sore nipples are usually characterized by:
- Constant nipple pain for an extended period
- Formation of a white or yellowish blister on the nipple, which is essentially a congested pore and is known as milk bleb (12)
- Swollen, itchy, and tender area around the nipple (1) (which can also be a sign of an underlying bacterial infection) (12)
Treatment for Sore Nipples
Some treatment modalities that can help relieve and prevent sore nipples are as follows:
- Lanolin pads, dexpanthenol cream, hydrogel therapy, glycerin gel therapy, and moist occlusive dressing can be used to keep your nipples hydrated.
- Learning about the proper latch-on techniques and breastfeeding positions can greatly help to nurse the baby effectively and prevent/manage sore nipples.
- Frenotomy is a minor surgical procedure that involves snipping the frenulum, or the small skin fold under the baby’s tongue, using a pair of scissors, scalpel, or laser. This procedure is recommended when the frenulum makes it difficult for the baby to latch on properly to the breast to draw enough milk. The low milk expression then leads to breast engorgement and sore nipples. The excision is usually painless since the targeted tissue contains very few nerve endings or blood vessels. (12)
Diagnosis of Sore Nipples
To diagnose the root cause of sore nipples, the doctor will first review the mother’s medical history and symptoms.
These are followed by a careful examination of the mother and the baby, and if required, a series of tests including sampling the breast milk, imaging tests such as a mammogram, or a biopsy of the breast tissue. (13) Additional testing is usually needed if a breast infection is suspected. (12)
Here are some easy ways to prevent sore nipples caused by breastfeeding:
- Keep changing the position in which you breastfeed your baby, but make sure that your baby’s mouth latches onto the nipple properly. This requires that the baby’s mouth should be wide open with the tongue cupped and forward. This will allow the baby to suck the milk properly without damaging the nipple. (12) If you feel that the baby hasn’t latched on properly, gently put your finger in the infant’s mouth to break the suction and then position them correctly. You must always break the suction this way before stopping breastfeeding rather than just forcefully removing the nipple from the baby’s mouth as this can cause skin damage.
- Make sure to express your breast milk regularly to completely empty the milk ducts. You can do this via breastfeeding, pumping, or hand expression.
- Regularly wash your breasts and nipples with mild soap and water.
- Wear a bra that fits your bra size and shape properly.
- Change nursing pads often to keep them clean and dry.
Most-Asked Questions About Sore Nipples
How do I identify the cause of my sore nipples?
Sore or painful nipples can be a result of various different factors, some more obvious than the others.
For lactating women, the most common cause of sore nipples is incorrect breastfeeding position or incomplete expression of breast milk. However, if your cause is not so apparent, you may want to consider what you were doing just before the onset of pain. (1)(8)(9)
Can I use mint to treat sore nipples?
Mint oil has a cooling effect that can help soothe the pain, itching, and swelling associated with sore nipples.
This effect can be attributed to certain compounds found in this oil such as carvone, limonene, menthol, and menthone, which exhibit anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Simply massage a little bit of mint oil or gel all over your nipples using gentle hand movements.
If your nipples show signs of trauma, such as fissures, bruising, bleeding, and blisters, or signs of infection, such as redness and discharge, consult a doctor for proper treatment.