Tender, swollen breasts after childbirth are to be expected — after all, they’re filling with life-giving milk to nourish and protect your brand new baby. (The giant, post-birth mesh panties that your kind nurse who just witnessed you push a bowling ball through your lady bits will offer you? Those are slightly less expected, but surprisingly welcome nonetheless.) However, if upon returning home, either breast becomes extremely painful — you could be in trouble. Even more so, if you start to feel like you’re coming down with the flu. Chances are good that you may be suffering from mastitis: a painful breast infection that results in red, inflamed breasts, and sometimes causes fever and chills. It is important to note that mastitis can occur at any time while breastfeeding, but is most likely to occur in the first six weeks.
So what actually causes the infection?
Mastitis occurs when germs enter your breast through a crack in your nipple — either from your skin’s surface or your baby’s mouth. Bacteria multiply, causing infection. You are at an increased risk for infection if your nipples are cracked, so use that nipple cream religiously! Clogged or plugged ducts can also lead to infection. You should never wear an ill-fitting or too tight nursing bra, and make sure to empty your breasts (via breastfeeding and/or pumping) regularly and completely. Experts say, if you’ve had mastitis before, chances are good you will get it again. Lucky, lucky. (I fell in this category.)
What symptoms should I be on the lookout for if I suspect mastitis?
Swelling, pain, and redness are obvious signs of a breast infection. (These could also be signs of a plugged duct.) Your breasts may also feel warm to the touch, and you could develop a temperature. You may also present other flu-like symptoms: chills, exhaustion (above and beyond normal new mom fatigue), body aches, and general malaise. Breastfeeding can also be painful, but you DO NOT want to stop! You cannot pass the infection on to your infant, and you have to continue to empty your breasts if you want to get better. Nursing (even if your practitioner prescribes an antibiotic) will help your body to rid itself of the infection. (And the antibiotic won’t do anything to baby.) If it’s too painful to nurse, use a pump.
What should I do if I suspect mastitis?
Call your doctor immediately! Delaying necessary treatment will only make things worse. Your doctor will be able to make the (official) diagnosis and prescribe any treatment — an oral antibiotic should clear the infection right up in a day or two. If it doesn’t, talk to your doctor. In the meantime, drink plenty of fluids and try to get some rest. Mild pain relievers (like acetaminophen), and a warm compress to the inflamed breast can also help with relief. For best results, take baby to bed with you until you’ve fully recovered, breastfeeding often. This, like most difficult parts of motherhood, too shall pass. Be patient, and give yourself grace.
Did you have mastitis? Were there any tricks that helped you get through?