What to do when you get a breast abscess while breastfeeding

A lactation specialist gives you the best advice to deal with this painful condition.

19 May 2016
by Ruth Rehbock

The experience of breastfeeding an infant is often a joyous one. However, if a mom develops a mastitis infection in her breast and it doesn’t get treated quickly and effectively, it can result in a breast abscess, a much more serious and painful breastfeeding problem. 

What causes a breast abscess to form?  

An abscess is usually caused by a bacterial infection in the breast which causes pus to collect in the breast tissue. Breast abscesses are most common in breastfeeding women and are caused by untreated mastitis. However, developing one is fortunately rare. 

“Mastitis is a condition in which one of the milk ducts in the breast gets blocked and bacteria are able to grow rapidly in that duct. This causes a mild infection,” says lactation specialist Laura Sayce who is based in Roodepoort, Johannesburg. “If mastitis isn’t cleared up quickly and efficiently, it will cause an abscess in the breast.”

What is mastitis exactly?

Breastfeeding women are most at risk for mastitis however, it’s not very common, affecting only around one in 10 breastfeeding women. 

Other causes include piercing the nipples, or constantly brushing an arm against the breast, even if that woman is not breastfeeding. If any woman has some or all of the symptoms of mastitis, she ought to see a doctor immediately.

Its symptoms include:

  • A red patch on the skin of your breast
  • Pain in the breast  
  • Fever, chills
  • Muscular aches and pains 

How to prevent mastitis – and an abscess – when you’re breastfeeding

Feeding on demand is crucial to allow baby to regulate milk production, which will prevent the breast from becoming engorged and being infected by mastitis. “If this happens, a mom must feed often, applying heat to the breast before feeding and cold after feeding. She must also express small amounts of milk as often as she needs to be comfortable – emptying your breast causes the breast to make more milk which can cause engorgement,” she explains. 

If it doesn’t clear within 24 hours, you must seek medical advice. “A breastfeeding mom can get help from a lactation consultant who will advise her on how to clear up the mastitis,” says Sayce. 

It’s critical to spot the signs of mastitis and to treat it as soon as possible so that you don’t develop a breast abscess

Treating a breast abscess

Those who have recurrent bouts of mastitis are more at risk of developing an abscess. 

Its symptoms include:

  • Swollen breast lump
  • Sharp pain in breast
  • The lump is red and feels hot to the touch 
  • Fever and other flu-like symptoms
  • Pus draining from nipple

If a breastfeeding mom develops an abscess she must see a doctor who is a breast specialist. They will prescribe an antibiotic and drain the abscess. “Abscesses are treated on a case-by-case basis, so it’s important for a mom to seek professional medical advice,” says Sayce. 

Generally, small abscesses can be removed in a doctor’s office through aspiration (draining the abscess with a needle) but sometimes in the case of larger abscesses, surgery may be needed to remove the lump. 

How will a breast abscess affect breastfeeding?

“In most cases it is safe for baby to continue feeding, even if there is pus in the breast milk, as it can’t harm your baby,” says Sayce. 

However, some babies don’t like the taste and will refuse that breast. If this occurs, ensure you express milk frequently to prevent engorgement. If you can’t continue feeding due to an incision being made near your nipple for drainage purposes, then use the other breast alone.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

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