I couldn’t get out of bed. This wasn’t a total shocker as the mom of a newborn. I was so tired of keeping up with my son’s busy no sleep schedule that there were definitely moments I wanted to stay under the covers longer. But this was different. I couldn’t get out of bed. My symptoms had come on fast: fever, chills, body aches, and I was having heart palpitations. Was I just totally overdoing it? Using the baby monitor like a walkie-talkie, I called my husband because something wasn’t right. I didn’t know that I had symptoms of mastitis.
I checked in with my body again. The chills hit every so often and I could feel my heart race and then skip a beat. That was freaking me right out. Along with everything else, my boob felt weird. There was a section of my left breast that was red, hot, and felt hard like I’d stuffed my pet rock in there for safekeeping. It didn’t hurt (yet), but it certainly didn’t feel normal. Honestly, I had to admit nothing about breastfeeding had felt “normal” so far. This just seemed like another strange happening to add to my list of other strange happenings.
Mastitis brings a trip to the ER
With all these bizarre symptoms, my husband and I decided I should go to the emergency room. As I got up to leave, I panicked and had second thoughts. This meant leaving my 3-week-old baby. My husband pointed out that I couldn’t care for my son if I was so sick, so he won partner points for reminding me to take care of myself. My mother-in-law stayed with our little guy and we drove to the hospital.
For 6 hours the emergency room doctor ran tests and the diagnosis was a word I’d never heard before— “mastitis.” It sounded like a new breed of ancient dinosaur had been found in my boob. I had no idea an infection in my breast could lead to flu-like symptoms and a round of antibiotics. What exactly had happened and could I have done something to prevent this?
What is mastitis?
Jadah Parks Chatterjee, Lactation Consultant and Bobbie Medical Expert, says, “Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast that may or may not involve a bacterial infection.” Chatterjee goes on to explain that mastitis is caused by an interference of milk flow. This can be brought on by contributing factors like: stress, exhaustion, engorgement, latch concerns, infrequent feedings (at chest/breast), increased chest/breast pressure (like wearing a wire bra all day), or anemia. Knowing all the “why’s” that bring on mastitis can help you better care for your breastfeeding boobs, so you too can avoid dinosaurs residing in them.
Mastitis symptoms are not the same as clogged ducts
“The symptoms of mastitis include engorged breasts or plugged ducts that become red and painful, including a fever and/or flu-like symptoms,” Chatterjee says. You know you have mastitis if you have two or more symptoms including not feeling well. So, does this mean mastitis is different from a clogged milk duct? Yep. Symptoms of a clogged duct include engorged boobs with a possible small or large lump, but no flu-like feelings. Mastitis manifests in a similar way but with signs like fever, a red area on the breast, and a hot swelling that feels way more intense than a clogged milk duct.
What is the treatment for mastitis?
Chatterjee explains that when treating mastitis you want to decrease breast inflammation with heat, massage, expression of milk, and rest. Taking warm showers or using microwavable warming pads are ways to use the healing power of heat to reduce swelling. Another topical treatment is to try cabbage leaves on your boobs to help with swelling and pain as well. Then when expressing your milk, gently massage the area above the clogged duct to get it flowing.
Along with those first steps, Chatterjee reminds you to increase your fluid intake—especially electrolytes and minerals. This will help regulate and control the balance of fluids in the body. For those mamas worried about taking over-the-counter medication while breastfeeding, Chatterjee says Ibuprofen can support milk let-down, decrease inflammation, and manage pain. She also encourages anyone to connect with your neighborhood lactation consultant or feeding specialist and your Maternal Health Provider at any point.
Do you need mastitis antibiotics?
“Mastitis cannot resolve itself,” says Chatterjee. This is why taking those first moves towards decreasing inflammation is so important. Another healing trick of the trade is ensuring an effective latch with your baby. Then after you’ve finished nursing, use cold compresses to decrease pain and inflammation. If you’ve tried all of these tips and two or more of these pesky symptoms persist after 12 hours, Chatterjee says it’s recommended to partner with your medical provider and seek lactation support.
When should you see a doctor for mastitis?
“For mild symptoms, resolving within 12-24 hours, antibiotics are not generally recommended,” Chatterjee says. If you experience a temperature of 100.4 (or higher), chills, and/or your symptoms have not gotten better (or have gotten worse), then it’s time to make that appointment to visit your doctor. It’s possible you might need the help of an antibiotic to treat or prevent a bacterial infection.
What happens if mastitis is left untreated?
Mastitis doesn’t mess around. If you leave your boobs to work this one out on their own, they’ll be asking you for a trip to the emergency room or urgent care facility. Chatterjee explains that an untreated case of mastitis can become worse and lead to a breast abscess. An abscess in the breast is a build-up of pus that is caused by the lingering breast infection. “You can expect an ultrasound of the breast to confirm the abscess. The pus will be extracted with a needle by a doctor, and antibiotics will be prescribed for 10-14 days to decrease the infection,” she says.
Can you still breastfeed if you have mastitis?
Absolutely. Nursing your little one can help your milk flow freer and relieve the pressure from clogged ducts. Our lactation consultant instructs you to begin on the affected breast with heat and gentle massage before latching the baby. While you’re feeding your infant, gently massage the breast to decrease the plugged ducts and soften the tissue.
If you need an antibiotic to help you heal— know it’s still safe to breastfeed. “The most common side effect for parents and babies is an upset tummy. You can expect your baby’s poo to make a change and the baby may be more fussy than usual,” Chatterjee says. While taking your antibiotics, a probiotic is also suggested to decrease the risk of thrush in babies which can be common when on an antibiotic.
Tips to help you prevent mastitis?
The super good news is there are ways to prevent mastitis from taking over your boobs. Healthy boobs keep you feeling, well…healthy, and feeling good is always a good thing when caring for your newborn. Here are 4 ways our own Jadah Parks Chatterjee suggests for keeping mastitis away:
Express milk often:
Ensure your baby has a deep latch to support the efficient transfer of milk. This will empty your breast and keep ducts from clogging.
Don’t pull back breast tissue while breastfeeding:
It’s not necessary to pull back your breast tissue while your infant is eating. Pulling back your breast tissue during feeding pulls the milk ducts out of the baby’s mouth. This contributes to milk stasis, leading to engorgement and/or plugged ducts, which leads to mastitis.
Help out your mammaries:
Don’t ignore plugged ducts. Make sure to heat and massage them to support their release.
Self care while breastfeeding:
You can prevent mastitis with rest, not stressing (asking for help at home), and eating nutrient-dense foods (high in iron and Vitamin C). Oh, don’t forget to hydrate frequently!
How fast can you feel better after mastitis?
After talking to my ob/gyn, it’s not surprising that mastitis and I found each other. I’d been nursing my son on a specific schedule, but his latch was tricky. He was full after our feedings but it seemed my breasts were, too. They hadn’t been emptied enough which led to clogged ducts. This, of course, led to mastitis. My symptoms presented faster than I could fall asleep for a nap, but after starting my antibiotics it only took three days for me to feel better. I continued on my breastfeeding journey, but I added all these supportive tricks I’d just learned. I was going to do my best to keep my boobs feeling happy and healthy so I could feel that way, too.