Milk stasis – not infection – is the main cause of mastitis

holding_babyPrior to my brush with it, I thought that mastitis was caused by a bacterial infection. This is not completely unreasonable, given that this is precisely how numerous ‘health’ websites define it (FreeMD, eMedicineHealth, HealthSquare to name just a few). When you consider that the symptoms of mastitis can include a fever as well as redness, lumps and pain in the breasts, and treatment can involve antibiotics, the definition seems to make sense.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be somewhat misleading. Whilst bacterial infection may play a part in mastitis, it is in fact inflammation of the breast tissue that is at the root of the condition, and causes the majority of the symptoms. The World Health Organization describes mastitis as ‘an inflammatory condition of the breast, which may or may not be associated with infection’1. They summarize the uncertain relationship between bacterial infection and mastitis as follows:

Many lactating women who have potentially pathogenic bacteria on their skin or in their milk do not develop mastitis.
But:
Many women who do develop mastitis do not have pathogenic organisms in their milk.

This basically means that you can be carrying the bacteria associated with mastitis – and even have it in your milk – without developing the condition, and conversely, you can succumb to mastitis when there is no evidence you’re carrying the bacteria.

So, if mastitis isn’t due to an infection, what does cause it? It appears that the inflammation that characterizes mastitis is a consequence of ‘milk stasis’: milk is produced, but then remains in the breast, rather than coming out during feeding. Milk stasis can occur for many reasons, including blockages in the ducts, a decrease in feeding frequency and poor attachment1,4. It’s also possible that stress might play a role, by both increasing milk production and delaying the letdown reflex2. Why milk stasis goes on to cause inflammation isn’t so clear, though it could result from inflammatory substances found in milk irritating the breast tissue, or an immune reaction to certain milk proteins3.

Although bacterial infection is not often the primary cause of mastitis, it is sometimes thought to exacerbate the symptoms3. Determining the precise role it plays, however, is a tricky business. Firstly, it is very hard to ensure that milk cultures are sterile, so it isn’t always possible to know that the bacteria found in a woman’s milk haven’t in fact come from her skin when the sample was taken1. Secondly, as stated above, harmful bacteria can be found in the milk of women who don’t have mastitis, indicating that there is not a simple cause and effect relationship between the two. One possibility is that mild changes initiated by milk stasis may be exacerbated by bacterial activity: symptoms could be considered to be on a scale, from a reduction in milk output but no pain (known as subclinical mastitis), to breast abscess and severe pain, with increasing amounts of bacterial involvement as you move from one end to the other3.

What does all this mean if you find yourself suffering from mastitis? Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the symptoms are probably due to a milk flow problem, so your top priority should be to address any causes of this. This might include making sure your baby is properly latched on, feeding more frequently and emptying the breast properly at each feed. Many doctors also choose to treat mastitis with antibiotics, although there is a lack of consensus as to which ones to use, and even whether it’s appropriate to use them at all (see when should mastitis be treated with antibiotics?). Whether or not you take medication, the most important thing is to keep the milk moving. Whilst feeding with mastitis doesn’t appear to pose a risk to you or your baby, stopping could well do: not only will it make the symptoms worse, but it will almost certainly jeopardize your milk supply5. Mastitis is a common reason for giving up breastfeeding, but it needn’t be – focus on sorting out your feeding technique and you should hopefully make a rapid recovery.

  1. Mastitis: causes and management. World Health Organization; 2000.
  2. Mediators Inflamm. 2008;2008:298760.
  3. Arch Dis Child. 2003 Sep;88(9):818-21
  4. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21;(1):CD005458.
  5. Am Fam Physician. 2008 Sep 15;78(6):727-31.

My mystery rash is mastitis!

telephoneSix weeks down the line, I felt I had really turned a corner with breastfeeding. My nipples were definitely starting to heal, and C seemed to be getting plenty of milk. Admittedly, she was pretty noisy at times (‘clicking’ noises were a regular occurrence) but as the milk was clearly going down her I didn’t really worry when I noticed a pinkish patch starting to appear on the inside of my left breast.

A couple of days passed, and the patch had turned into a definite rash: a wedge-shaped stripe running from the top right to the nipple of my left breast. It didn’t hurt, and I still wasn’t overly perturbed, but I thought I should probably find out what it was.

By this stage, contact with the health visitor had long since ceased, and although I had planned to ask at the weighing clinic, in the end it just didn’t seem the right time. In any case, my recent experience had taught me that the most likely response of any health professional would be to recommend I speak to a counsellor, so I decided to pre-empt them, and got on the phone.

This time I decided to call La Leche League. Like the NCT counsellor I had spoken to previously, the lady who answered the phone had a pretty brusque bedside manner. Never mind – I needed answers, not sympathy. When I had described my symptoms, she replied, without skipping a beat, ‘ah, classic early stage mastitis.’ What?! But it didn’t hurt! This, she agreed, was unusual, but she suspected it was because I had caught it so quickly. If I left it any longer, the pain would definitely arrive. How old was my baby?, she asked. When I said 6 weeks, I could almost hear her wearily shaking her head at the other end of the phone. ‘This is such a common problem at this stage. Women think they’ve really got the hang of breastfeeding and become complacent, so they don’t adequately respond to the fact that their baby has started to get much heavier, and he ends up being poorly attached.’ My heart sank. I had been thinking that I’d pretty much got it sorted. I’d been a bit worried about the clicking noises, but had put them down to the torrent that was released by my letdown these days. Whether or not that was the cause, it seems I should have heeded them as a potential sign of a poor latch.

I put down the phone relieved that I had caught the problem early, but somewhat panicked at the thought of what it might turn into if I didn’t (a fever and a potential hospital admission. No pressure then.) Although her advice – to avoid further inflammation by keeping the breast as empty as possible – seemed straightforward enough, following it involved solving a latch problem that I hadn’t even realized existed. Feeling pretty fed up, I picked up C, and set about perfecting my breastfeeding technique all over again.

Nipple solutions 1: doing nothing

creamMy nipple fissures weren’t showing any signs of improving, so after a day of deliberation, I phoned the National Childbirth Trust. I was starting to realise that the fact that there were helplines (and whole charities, in the case of La Leche League) dedicated to solving breastfeeding problems should probably have served as a warning that it might not be that easy. The counsellor who answered the phone was helpful, if a little abrupt. She asked me which direction my nipples pointed (!) and when I said it was slightly outwards, rather than directly forwards, she said that they were probably getting bent backwards in C’s mouth when I was holding her in the cradle feeding position. She suggested using a different position to feed her (such as the rugby/football hold, where C’s mouth would approach the nipple from the opposite direction) while I waited for them to heal. This seemed sensible advice, and after a few goes, C and I managed to perfect some new feeding positions. Although I can’t say it was definitely less painful, the knowledge that C’s mouth probably wasn’t putting pressure on my nipples in the same way seemed to help at least psychologically.

The NCT counsellor, like every midwife I spoke to, also recommended I use Lansinoh cream – ‘absolutely loads of it, as a barrier’ – to protect my nipples. I had been religiously applying it since the bleeding had started, and following advice, continued to do so as the state of my nipples got worse. After a few more days, I stopped to think about this: the state of my nipples was getting worse…

Up to now, still in a post-birth haze, I’d been relying on the NHS resources, reading the leaflets and speaking to midwives and health visitors. They’d been very understanding and sympathetic, but things weren’t really improving, and I was getting desperate. I decided to start Googling in earnest, searching for things like ‘nipple fissures’, and going beyond the first page – sometimes even as far as the fifth! What I ended up with was quite a lot of hits for ‘anal fissures’ (not terribly useful), but in amongst these and the general parenting advice sites, was a scientific paper looking at treatments for cracked nipples1.

The study compared using lanolin cream (like Lansinoh) with using breast milk, and leaving nipples untreated. A short summary of the results goes as follows: the women who used breast milk on their nipples, or who did nothing at all, recovered significantly faster than the ones using lanolin (for a longer discussion see the is lanolin cream a waste of money? post).

Armed with this knowledge, I dumped the Lansinoh, and within only a few hours, things seemed to improve. I can’t be sure whether this was as a direct consequence of not applying the cream, but it seemed to be working, and I decided to stick with it.

  1. Saudi Med J. 2005 Aug; 26(8):1231-4
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