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Mastitis: What Every New Nursing Mom Needs to Know

Breastfeeding for the first time can bring up lots of questions and worries for new moms, like how you should nurse the baby, how do you keep your milk supply up and how to prevent yourself from getting mastitis.

While most women won’t have to deal with the breast infection mastitis, if it happens to you it can be unsettling. In fact, you might not have even heard of it before until you started breastfeeding.

We spoke with Shelbie Radom, RN, a lactation consultant at Banner Health in Colorado, to help give us a rundown of what mastitis is, the symptoms you should look out for, how to treat it, and some preventive measure you can take to avoid it.

What is mastitis?

Mastitis, also called lactation mastitis, is an inflammation or swelling in your breast tissue that is caused by backed-up milk ducts. When the blocked duct isn’t cleared it can lead to a painful breast infection.

“If the breasts aren’t emptied regularly every two to three hours in the first weeks of feeding your baby or by using an adequate breast pump, then milk can become trapped, leading to clogged milk ducts,” Radom noted.

Mastitis can also occur when bacteria enters into the breast from a cracked or damaged nipple. This can allow bacteria from your baby’s mouth and your skin to enter one of the plugged ducts and grow.

How do I know if I have mastitis?

Symptoms of mastitis can appear quickly, but often the first symptom of mastitis is a breast lump or thickening of your breast tissue. Other symptoms may include:

  • Breast tenderness and swelling
  • Pain or burning sensation while breastfeeding or by touch
  • The skin of the breast changes colors, often red, purple or even shiny
  • Fever and flu-like symptoms, like chills, headache and exhaustion

How do I treat mastitis?

It may be hard to know what to do when you feel so overwhelmingly awful. But one of the most important things you can do is to keep up with your regular nursing schedule.

“You may be tempted to stop nursing from the affected breast, but you can actually recover quicker and get more relief by continuing,” Radom said. “Breastfeed your baby on the affected side first when they are most hungry and try to change positions.”

Some other things you can do at home are:

  • Apply a warm, moist compress before feeding your baby or pumping. Warm showers and baths are helpful too!
  • Apply cool compresses or ice packs to the breast after breastfeeding for up to 20 minutes for comfort and to decrease inflammation.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Take care of yourself and make sure you get plenty of rest.
  • Check with your doctor to see if you can safely take over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • You may need to pump, but check with your lactation consultant or doctor first, because “sometimes pumping can cause increased inflammation,” Radom said.

If your symptoms don’t improve, you have a fever of 101 degrees F or more or you notice pus or blood in your breast milk, call your doctor. “If you aren’t able to empty your breast, if symptoms persist, or pain increases, you must call your doctor to be evaluated early to prevent from becoming ill,” Radom said. “They may want to give you an antibiotic to treat the infection.”

Tips for preventing mastitis

The good news is there are plenty of easy things you can do to prevent mastitis. Here are some things you can do for yourself, your breasts and your baby:

  • Empty each side of your breast completely before switching.
  • Make sure your baby is properly latched.
  • Massage and use warm compresses before breastfeeding or pumping to help soften the breast.
  • Apply ice after nursing for unrelieved swelling.
  • Switch out nursing pads once you notice they’re wet.
  • Consult your doctor or lactation consultant early on if you’re having feeding issues.

“With mastitis, every patient is different so regularly observe your breasts and never be afraid to reach out to your lactation consultant or doctor sooner rather than later to avoid becoming ill or having to be readmitted,” Radom said.

Getting mastitis when you’re a new mama can seem like a cruel joke, but don’t take it personally. By knowing the signs and getting treated early, you’ll be back to your normal (although exhausted) self in no time.

To speak with a Banner Health lactation consultant or specialist, visit bannerhealth.com.

For more breastfeeding and parenting tips, check out:

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