Clogged Milk Ducts and Mastitis Treatment
Here's how to prevent and treat plugged ducts, mastitis, and milk blebs, so you can comfortably and confidently continue your breastfeeding journey.
What Causes Clogged Milk Ducts?
Along with all the amazing benefits that breastfeeding provides, it can also come with some challenges. Three common concerns for nursing and pumping moms are sore, painful conditions on the breast called clogged (or blocked) milk ducts, mastitis, and milk blebs (or nipple blebs). It’s important to understand the difference between these three conditions and how to prevent a clogged milk duct, mastitis, or a milk bleb from occurring. Understanding what causes these conditions and how to treat them can help your breastfeeding journey be as easy and painless as possible.
What Are Clogged Milk Duct Symptoms?
If any milk duct in the breast is not drained well, the area becomes "clogged" up (or blocked), and milk is prevented from flowing. Clogged milk ducts feel like a firm, sore lump in the breast, and may be reddened and warm to the touch. Clogged milk ducts are common in breastfeeding moms and can be caused by anything from missing feedings to wearing a bra that is too tight.
To prevent clogged milk ducts, it’s essential for you to nurse your baby often and not miss feedings or to replace feedings by pumping often.
How to Clear a Clogged Milk Duct
If you do end up with a clogged milk duct, here are some tips to relieve and unclog a milk duct:
- Before nursing or pumping, use a warm, moist compress on the plugged area for several minutes, then massage the area to break up the blockage.
- Begin your nursing or pumping (if single pumping) on the affected side until the blockage is broken up.
- Firmly massage the affected area toward the nipple during nursing or pumping and alternate with compression around the edges of the clogged milk duct to break it up.
- Try a warm soak in the bath or shower along with massaging the plugged duct while soaking.
If the issue persists, check with a healthcare provider for additional treatment options.
What Is Mastitis?
Mastitis is another name for a breast infection. It will usually appear as a painful, hard, wedge-shaped red area on the breast, accompanied by fever and flu-like symptoms. Mastitis isn’t as common as a clogged milk duct, but up to a fifth of breastfeeding moms may experience it at some point.
Mastitis is most common in the first few weeks postpartum and often follows engorgement, but it can happen at any time. Being overtired, smoking, and having cracked nipples can put you at higher risk for mastitis. When skin is broken, germs from the environment, your skin, or your baby’s mouth can penetrate the breast, leading to the bacterial infection in your breast tissue.
Mastitis Symptoms and Treatments
If you have mastitis symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately. Pay careful attention to common symptoms, such as:
- An intense, localized pain in a specific area of the breast.
- Fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Flu-like symptoms.
- The presence of a reddened (often wedge-shaped) area on the breast.
In addition to mastitis treatment from a healthcare professional, experts recommend that you "heat, rest, and empty breast":
- Use a warm compress before nursing or pumping.
- Get extra rest and sleep to help the healing process.
- Continue pumping or breastfeeding. Emptying the breast reduces inflammation, and stopping milk expression could lead to complications like a breast abscess.
Breastfeeding isn't always easy, but nothing that incredible ever is. As a mom, you'll choose to make sacrifices every day for the better of your child and family. While you can't predict every challenge you'll face, being prepared with what to expect and how to react is the first step in getting through any tough situation. Remember, if you are ever in need of personalized breastfeeding advice, be sure to reach out to your doctor or a local lactation specialist. You can also reach out to our on-staff Lactation Consultant or download the Medela Family app for additional resources and assistance. We're here to help!
What Are Milk Blebs?
Also known as milk blisters or nipple blebs, a milk bleb is a congealed milk bubble that has blocked one of your milk ducts and prevented it from draining. Milk blebs can usually be identified as a tiny dot on top of the nipple that resembles a plug. This spot is usually very painful, may cause discomfort while breastfeeding, and even inflammation or irritation of the surrounding skin.
What Causes Milk Blebs?
Milk blebs occur when a very small section of skin grows over a milk duct opening or a nipple pore, and then breast milk becomes trapped behind it. It is important to note that milk blebs are different from a blister that may occur due to friction, often because of an improper latch or using the wrong size breast shield.
Milk Bleb Treatment
If you suspect you have a milk bleb, the best way to treat it is by removing it. The thickened milk that is the bleb will not be harmful to your baby, and nursing may even help soften the bleb. You can also try applying moist heat to the affected area - such as by taking a warm bath or soaking the milk bleb with a warm compress to help soften it. Hand expression using your fingers near the nipple, grasping the tip of the plug, and then gently "working" it out can also sometimes help remove the milk bleb. You may see a strand of hardened milk come out of the duct when doing this. If the milk bleb doesn't resolve within a day or two of trying to remove it yourself, speak with your healthcare provider or a lactation consultant.
Finally, remember to empty your breasts frequently by nursing, pumping, or both. Also, be sure to avoid clothing like sports bras or bras with underwire that may put extended pressure on your breasts!