A breast abscess is a pus-filled mass that develops within the tissue of the breast. A bacterial infection associated with breast-feeding (mastitis) is one of the primary causes of a breast abscess. 

A woman having her breast examined by a doctor

Breast abscesses can occur in non-lactating women too; often these develop just under the nipple (subareolar abscess) as a result of blocked glands that become infected. This type of abscess is more common in women who are smokers. A breast abscess might be felt as a lump in the breast or it may be too deep to detect.

The culprit behind most cases of breast abscess and infection is Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. 

What are its symptoms?

Breast abscess symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • A tender mass within the breast
  • Warmth and redness of the affected area and surrounding tissue
  • Engorgement or swelling
  • Fever or chills
  • Fatigue
  • There may be a discharge of pus from the nipple.

How is it diagnosed? 

In breastfeeding mothers who present with the symptoms of a breast infection, diagnosis of a mass in the breast as an abscess is straightforward, usually requiring no more than a physical examination in the doctor’s rooms. 

In non-lactating women, the risk of an unusual lump being a cancerous tumour means that additional tests may be deemed necessary such as an ultrasound to provide a more detailed image of the mass or a breast biopsy, in which a small tissue sample is removed for laboratory testing. 

Further tests may be performed to pinpoint the organism behind the infection, so that doctors can decide which antibiotic to prescribe.

What are your treatment options? 

If a breast infection has advanced to a stage where an abscess has developed, it may be too late to treat it with antibiotics alone. As a result, breast abscess treatment is usually focused on drainage of the abscess in addition to antibiotics to clear the infection. Depending on the size of the abscess, it’ll either be drained with a syringe and needle (aspiration) or, for larger abscesses, a small incision with a scalpel may be required. 

A local anaesthetic will be administered to reduce discomfort during the procedure or a general anaesthetic may be used if the procedure needs to be performed in the operating theatre.

Can it be prevented? 

Vital to the prevention of breast abscess is ensuring that you act at the first sign of breast infection. A red, sore breast in lactating mothers is cause for concern and warrants immediate medical attention, as it may be a sign of mastitis. A lactation consultant can advise on the correct nursing technique to minimise risk of infection. 

In non-lactating women, quitting smoking can go a long way towards reducing your risk of breast infections and abscess, as can carefully managing conditions such as diabetes, which may increase your risk.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2016