I have to begin this post with a disclaimer that I am NOT a licensed medical professional, and this is all information I have gathered on my own from the internet, my OBGYN, or my firsthand experience. Please speak to or see a medical professional for any concerns you may have.
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I have had mastitis twice, and each time I knew I had it based on a small, dime sized red spot on my breast. Paired with abnormal tenderness/soreness and swelling, and they felt very hot to the touch. They measured at 101 degrees Fahrenheit, despite my own body temp not yet reaching a fever. (at least according to our forehead thermometer). I was also just feeling super tired, and even confused at one point.
What is mastitis? How do you know when you have it?
Mastitis: Mastitis is an inflammation of breast tissue that sometimes involves an infection. The inflammation results in breast pain, swelling, warmth and redness. You might also have fever and chills. Mastitis most commonly affects women who are breast-feeding (lactation mastitis)
Signs and symptoms of mastitis can appear suddenly. They may include:
Breast tenderness or warmth to the touch
Thickening of breast tissue, or a breast lump
Pain or a burning sensation continuously or while breast-feeding
Skin redness, often in a wedge-shaped pattern
Generally feeling ill
Fever of 101 F (38.3 C) or greater
What causes mastitis?
Milk that is trapped in the breast is the main cause of mastitis. Other causes include:
A blocked milk duct. If a breast doesn't completely empty at feedings, one of your milk ducts can become clogged. The blockage causes milk to back up, leading to breast infection.
Bacteria entering your breast. Bacteria from your skin's surface and baby's mouth can enter the milk ducts through a crack in the skin of your nipple or through a milk duct opening. Stagnant milk in a breast that isn't emptied provides a breeding ground for the bacteria.
source: Mayo Clinic
Bottom line there is IMPROPER EMPTYING can cause mastitis, whether it be from a blocked/clogged duct or stagnant milk in a non empty breast! I personally take sunflower lecithin to help prevent clogs, I have used this brand and this brand and like them both. Improper emptying can be a result of a few things, take a look at my list here to make sure you're not making common pumping mistakes.
According to my OBGYN, the sight of a red spot is an indication that an infection is present, and I needed antibiotics to turn it around, I couldn't just do it on my own. I expected mastitis to look like google's images, the entire breast red and patchy, humongous and swollen. That was not the case, as I'd caught it early!
What happens if you go untreated? Well, my OBGYN scared the living daylights out of me telling me what happens if I didn't get to work on it, FAST. You can apparently end up in the emergency room, go septic, develop an abscess, sometimes in extreme cases, apparently you can die. (she didn't say that last part, google did!)
Holy mackerel that FREAKED ME OUT! I'm a bit of an overreacter sometimes, and I also panic easily. Not good!
Step one: Don't panic. Relax, you'll be just fine, especially if you start working on it immediately.
Call your OBGYN and tell them what's up. If you notice it after hours, see if your office has a 24/7 nurse line (mine does) and you can have the nurse leave a message for the OB to get you a prescription for antibiotics first thing in the morning if they think you need it. There are also online 24/7 clinics such as Virtuwell that can treat you. Make sure you take the entire course as directed, even when symptoms begin to improve.
For me, both times, I had to take the entire 10 day course before all of my symptoms went away completely.
Your OBGYN will tell you to feed or pump very frequently. Every 2-3 hours, use a warm compress for the first five minutes and if you can, pump/feed after a shower or bath. You know how when you put your milk in the fridge, it begins to separate and the fat rises to the top? Well, when you warm it up, the fat reincorporates into the milk and it thins out a bit. In the same way, using warmth before or during pumping will help thin out the milk, and get it flowing out easier. The idea is to get the clog out as soon as possible. Taking lecithin also helps to thin the milk, I take it daily to help prevent clogged ducts to begin with.
You want to empty as often as possible, with heat and massage, and be sure to get plenty of rest. Push fluids, of course, as with any infection you want to help your body flush it out and stay well hydrated. Continue to feed your baby, whether that's direct breastfeeding or pump and bottle feeding. Mastitis does not make your milk unsafe for baby, and typically the antibiotics are safe as well, though I would absolutely confirm with your prescribing doctor and pediatrician.
If you don't see any relief from symptoms after the first 48 hours, call your OBGYN back. For me, the breast tenderness stuck around the longest. Usually by the end of the antibiotics course I was feeling normal again, give or take a day.
These are some of the tips I personally used and found to be helpful during my bouts of mastitis:
Frequent emptying- My OBGYN told me to empty as often as possible, especially in the first 24 hours. I scare easily so I was pumping every 2 hours on the dot. That sure drop kicked my supply into gear, I was pumping all time high daily volumes both rounds! I even learned how to sleep during sessions, while sitting up. That's a skill I never thought I would have. Having my portable pump made that waaaay more manageable than trying to find time to sit down tethered to the wall.
Tylenol for swelling/pain- I didn't have constant doses throughout the entire 10ish days, but in the first 48 hours I would take Tylenol to help ease swelling and tenderness.
Antibiotics- Not all cases of mastitis require antibiotics, but it's important to have a doctor make that determination. Both times, my doctor told me the "red spot" I found was a sign of infection, so she wrote me prescriptions (over the phone too!)
Warm compress- Warmth can help milk flow and thin out for faster emptying, and loosen a clog if there's one in there (mastitis can be cause by a clogged duct, however that's not the cause of EVERY case as far as I know). I love these Booby Tubes for that, I felt much better using cotton and flaxseed warming packs than plastic and mystery gel! You can use the code "TEACHINGMOTHERHOOD" for 15% off of those!
Push lots of fluids- Staying hydrated while breastfeeding is key, even more so when you're under the weather. Plain water is always the best, but I've been known to enjoy an electrolyte beverage here and there.
Rest- When I had mastitis, I was way more exhausted than I normally am! I found myself setting up lots of minimal-mess but still very attention consuming activities for my kids so I could sit still for a while.
Avoid tight bras and shirts- I was advised to go braless when I could, so I would just wear baggy t-shirts or my maternity tanks for the super short periods between pumping sessions.
Don't stress about it. Tell your body and mind that everything is gonna be just fine, and that it'll be over in a few days. However I always advocate for 'trusting your gut'- if something really doesn't feel right, don't hesitate to ask your OBGYN for help, or if you're really REALLY concerned, call or visit urgent care/ER. You'll be just fine!
I would like to finish this off with again clarifying that I am absolutely not a medical professional by any means, this is all based off of the information I was given by my OBGYN, my own personal experience, and our good friend google. If you have any concerns, I advise you to speak with or be seen by a medical professional - specifically an OBGYN who is familiar with this type of illness.
Are you currently breastfeeding or pumping? Take a look at some of my other resources:
Are you having issues with pumping? Don't hesitate to reach out to me, I may be able to help you! I have ten months of experience and am in the middle of taking my course to get certified as a breastfeeding specialist.