Sore nipples are no fun. Both men and women can suffer from pain and irritation in this wholly inconvenient location.
Most nipple pain can be treated at home without the involvement of a professional. Persisting pain, however, can be a sign of something more serious. It's good to know what to look out for and what different accompanying symptoms might mean.
Despite being one of the more sensitive parts of the human body, we often forget about our nipples during our day-to-day. When nipple soreness arises, seemingly out of nowhere, it can be irritating both emotionally and physically.
Sometimes, a healthy diet is all it takes to change the situation. A lack of essential fatty acids can make the skin more fragile and sensitive to humidity, temperature, and various types of friction. Since the skin on and around your nipples is already more sensitive and fragile, additional stressors can lead to dryness and irritation.
The most common reason for nipple pain is friction. ‘Jogger's nipple’ is soreness that comes from clothes rubbing against your nipples. It can be caused by something as simple as wearing a bra that fits poorly or a shirt made of coarse material. Runners can be more affected by this because of the repetitive movement of running, sometimes in combination with ill-fitting sports gear. Experienced runners don't usually have this problem—the longer you run, the less likely it is that you'll be affected by ‘jogger's nipple’. Even a sensitive body adapts over time.
If you’re suffering friction burns, treat them like any other burn—with moisturizer and time. Opt for softer, more comfortable clothing that fits you well for greater comfort during daily activities, and choose appropriate gear for sports.
Allergic reactions to soaps, laundry detergents, conditioners, and lotions can cause itching, redness, and rashes. Since nipples are so sensitive, they are often the first to get irritated. Make sure that the products you’re using aren’t out of date, and that they’re manufactured by a reputable company that doesn't use harmful additives. If the products you use fit these criteria, but you are still experiencing soreness, try eliminating them from your routine, one by one, to identify the cause of the irritation.
Sunburns can be more severe on body parts that aren’t usually exposed to sunshine. This includes your nipples, so don’t forget about them when applying quality sunscreen that is appropriate for your skin type before spending time out in the sun. If it’s too late for preventative measures, rinse your nipples with cool water, then apply a gentle moisturizer or topical hydrocortisone cream.
Sexual activity is also a potential culprit. Nipples are an erogenous zone, and can be pinched and teased to enhance pleasure in both men and women, however, excessive fondling can result in sore nipples. Simply leaving the nipples alone until they are fully healed (applying a little moisturizer if necessary) should do the trick.
Combating this type of irritation should be relatively easy, as long as you can eliminate the cause and give yourself enough time to heal. If you’ve tried everything you can think of and have yet to see results, it might be best to consult a dermatologist.
Infections are also likely to cause nipple pain, most often affecting breastfeeding women. An infection of the mammary ducts—mastitis—can be caused by bacteria or other microorganisms entering your body through cracked nipples. Poor nutrition, stress, strenuous exercise, fatigue, or an ill-fitting bra can all contribute to nipple damage. In turn, mastitis can cause further problems such as thrush.
Along with nipple soreness, mastitis can be identified by symptoms such as:
Antibiotics are often used to treat mastitis.
Thrush is a yeast infection that can affect breastfeeding women, also as a result of bacteria getting in through damaged nipples. Yeast is naturally present on the skin and in your body. Although usually harmless, it can cause problems if it grows out of balance or moves to places it shouldn't be. An overgrowth of yeast in the breast tissues can also be caused by taking antibiotics that wipe out healthy bacteria along with disease.
Yeast infections spread quickly and can be difficult to get rid of. Symptoms include red, burning nipples, and, if breastfeeding, thrush can appear as white patches or redness in and around the infant's mouth. Thrush is usually treated with antifungal cream or other antifungal medication.
Some medications can contribute to the development of breast and nipple pain. Medications linked to an increase in breast pain include:
Eczema or atopic dermatitis is a skin condition that, in addition to nipple pain, causes crusting, flaking, or blistering around the nipple. Eczema is caused by your skin overreacting to irritation, causing inflammation. Some clothes, laundry detergents, soaps, and even lotions can be the cause of this irritation (see paragraph about allergic reactions above).
Most breast cancers don't cause any pain, however, there are some types, including inflammatory breast cancer, known to cause noticeable discomfort.
Signs of breast cancer include:
Even if the symptoms aren't many, it's better to be safe than sorry—get regular check ups at your doctor's office and do daily self-examinations: check your breasts and armpits, and the area all the way to your collarbone. Familiarise yourself with what your body is normally like, and tell your doctor if you notice any unusual lumps or bumps, rashes, pain or discomfort, blood or discharge, changes in your skin (puckering or dimpling), or red patches that won’t heal. Early diagnosis is the best aid for successful treatment.
Paget's disease. This is a very rare condition that has been associated with cancer. It can affect the areola and people with inverted nipples tend to be more at risk. Symptoms of Paget’s are usually found on one side of the body only. Paget's disease can develop either in the mammary or extramammary glands. Only a doctor can give you an accurate diagnosis.
In addition to the more common symptoms listed above, watch out for:
These skin changes may come and go early on, or respond to topical treatment, making it appear as if your skin is healing. Women suffering from Paget’s disease tend to experience signs and symptoms for several months before getting a diagnosis.
Erosive Adenomatosis of the Nipple (EAN) is a benign tumor that can strongly resemble Paget's disease. Diagnostic tests are necessary to eliminate other possible causes.
Most people will experience pain, discomfort, bruising, and swelling after breast surgery. The severity and type of pain varies from person to person. It often results from nerve damage or inflammation. The pain may affect the surface of the breast or may be felt deep within the tissues for up to 6 months, and even longer in some cases. Long-term effects may include increased or reduced sensitivity, pain when touching the affected area, inability to raise your arm above your head, and difficulty driving and performing other regular physical activities.
To lessen the chances of such pain becoming chronic, talk to your doctor about pain medication, massage, physical therapy, or thalassotherapy (the systematic use of seawater for health benefits).
Nipple pain and nipple soreness during pregnancy or as a symptom of PMS is very common. Fluid shifts in the mammary ducts and causes swelling, which increases the sensitivity of the breasts and nipples, sometimes causing them to feel sore. This type of nipple soreness comes and goes in pregnant women and in others it should cease when your period is over.
Nipple soreness during pregnancy is caused by the increase of estrogen in your body. To make your breasts more comfortable make sure your maternity bras are soft and breathable with no seams around the nipples. If you feel your nipples getting dry or cracking, use moisturizer.
To better prepare your breasts for breastfeeding, try the following:
Before menopause, your body goes through another set of hormonal changes—progesterone production increases as estrogen levels drop dramatically. Some of the symptoms that are linked to the onset of menopause are:
While each person experiences pain differently, breast pain caused by menopause is often of a different quality than the pain felt during the menstrual cycle. This type of pain is described as burning, stabbing, or throbbing in one or both breasts. The discomfort should stop when your body ceases production of estrogen and your period is gone for good, however, if you are using some form of hormone therapy, the soreness may continue.
For most women, some breast and nipple sensitivity and discomfort is common, especially during the first few days of breastfeeding. Persistent pain is not. Nipple sensitivity should decrease in the first week or so. If this doesn't happen or if breastfeeding becomes a painful chore—it’s time to talk to your doctor.
The most common reason is that your hungry baby is suckling enthusiastically to get milk more quickly. This may be because the baby hasn't properly latched onto the breast or the feeding position needs to be adjusted, although some babies are just enthusiastic about suckling.
if your baby tends to suckle for comfort after feeding and your nipples are sore—once the baby is no longer swallowing milk, gently remove your nipple from its mouth. Pulling the baby's mouth away from your breast without first breaking the suction can also cause soreness. If your baby has a short frenulum (the tissue connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth), this can be tricky. If the problem endures, consult your doctor about snipping the frenulum. This does not cause the baby much discomfort and can make things much easier for both of you.
Sometimes nipple soreness is caused by a poor milk flow or let-down reflex—the process of milk being released in preparation for breastfeeding, triggered by oxytocin. This reflex is triggered by pumping or suckling, touching your breasts or nipples, hearing a baby cry, or even just thinking about your baby. It presents as a tingling sensation in the nipples, a feeling of fullness, milk leaking from the breasts before nursing or from one breast while the baby is nursing at the other, and as uterine contractions during nursing.
In order to stimulate this reflex, breastfeed your child on demand, pump often if pumping, and drink lots of fluids. The more you stimulate milk production, the more milk you will produce.
There are many resources available to help make breastfeeding easier, including breastfeeding classes, online tutorials, and informative articles. Consult your doctor or pediatrician if you have any additional questions.
If you want your sore nipples to heal, create an environment where this can happen. Moisturizing is the first step—you can try different substances to see what works best for you. For example, after nursing, squeeze out a drop of milk and spread it over your nipple. Breast milk can be surprisingly effective!
If this is not enough, you can use modified lanolin or another specially formulated ointment or cream made with hypoallergenic ingredients (consult your doctor to find the treatment most appropriate for you). If your nipples have cracks of fissures, let your breasts air-dry after nursing as frequently as possible, and use an antiseptic cream to prevent infection.
Be careful with breastfeeding pads that are worn inside the bra to prevent leakage. If left too long in a humid environment, they can increase the risk of infection. Also, when the pad dries, it may stick to the nipple, which can be unpleasant during removal.
To reduce pain, you can also apply cool compresses to your nipples after breastfeeding. Wear functional and comfortable breast support—cotton bras with wide, non-elastic straps will support your breasts without irritating the nipples. Sometimes wearing a bra at night for additional support can reduce discomfort.
Every part of your body deserves to be loved, even though some bits aren’t as convenient to care for as others. Neglect, however, comes with consequences. Take a moment from time to time to check in with every part of your body, make sure everything is functioning as it should. Not only does awareness promote self-appreciation, it is also part of the skill-set that lets you catch escalating health problems early on.
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