A breast abscess is a a painful mass on the breast. It presents as a pink to reddish swelling, warm or hot to the touch. Like other abscesses, it is filled with fluid and pus. Pus is a combination of bacteria, white blood cells the body sends to eradicate the bacteria, and dead tissue. The accumulation of these materials causes inflammation and pain.
Most often, breast abscesses are found under the nipple or on the areola, but they may occur on any area of the breast. It should be noted that breast inflammation, also known as mastitis, may also originate from more serious causes, such as breast cancer, and should always be investigated, particularly when occurring in post-menopausal women.
Causes of Breast Abscess
There are many causes for breast abscesses, all involving the entrance of bacteria, usually Staphylococcus aureus, into the breast tissue. Most, but not all, breast abscesses develop in lactating women.
Breast abscesses are most common during breast feeding, particularly during the first three months post partum. During this period, the breast is more open to bacterial invasion and to plugged milk ducts which allow bacteria to proliferate. Mothers of newborns should be particularly careful about keeping the breast area clean.
Inadequate breast emptying during nursing also creates an opportunity for breast abscesses to develop. This problem is more likely to occur as the baby is being weaned and the periods between feedings are longer.
In addition to the possibility of bacteria entering the milk ducts through the nipple during breast feeding, there are other reasons breast abscesses may occur. Breast injury, nipple piercing, or sore or cracked nipples of any origin may make a breast abscess more likely.
Other Risk Factors for Breast Abscesses
Women who smoke, have diabetes, take steroids, have HIV, or are receiving certain anti-cancer treatments are more likely to develop breast abscesses than the general population. Breast abscesses in men, though rare, may also occur.
Symptoms of Breast Abscess
Breast abscesses should be suspected with localized symptoms in the breast or armpit of women of any age or when flu-like symptoms appear in nursing mothers.
- Pain, swelling or redness at the site
- Fatigue or malaise
- Aches and chills
- Nausea or vomiting
- Swelling of lymph nodes, particularly those under the arms
Prevention of a Breast Abscess
While breast abscesses cannot always be avoided, proper breast hygiene and the application of healing ointments to the nipples, particularly those containing vitamins A and D, may be helpful. Special measures to keep the breast area clean and germ free are especially necessary for women who are breastfeeding or for individuals who have undergone a nipple piercing.
Treatment of a Breast Abscess
When breast abscesses are caught early, simple treatments may resolve the issue. The application of moist heat, in the form of warm compresses applied to the region, may reduce inflammation and promote drainage.Once the infection has taken hold, more serious steps must be taken.
In most cases, topical antibiotics aren't sufficient to cure the abscess and oral antibiotics are necessary. Analgesics are usually recommended for pain relief, although nursing mothers should take such medication only under their physician's advice. In more serious cases, when an abscess doesn't respond to prescription antibiotics, it may have to be surgically drained.