From Prevention To Treatment

As much as it pains me to say this, I am the mastitis guru. I have had, over the course of three children and a combined 3-1/2 years of breastfeeding, a grand total of — wait for it — seven cases of mastitis, one of which was so severe it required an actual hospitalization. Ouch.

Mother feeding her newborn | PregnancyAndBaby.com

Mastitis — and I am not the first mother to say this — can be worse than labor, childbirth or the entire last month of pregnancy. In the summer. All put together.

The ailment is its own form of torture unique to breastfeeding mothers, or say, dairy cows. But after experiencing it so many times, I can honestly say that it has been one of the hardest things to get through as a mother. I'm not sure if it's the pain it causes, the fact that you have to continue nursing through it, or the incredibly high fever that always seems to accompany it. Whatever it is, it simply wipes you out.

The truth is, I wouldn't wish mastitis on my worst enemy. And as an OB nurse, I sincerely hope that mothers — especially new mothers who may be struggling with or adjusting to breastfeeding already — can overcome it to continue to nurse their babies as long as they wish.

What is mastitis?

Basically, mastitis occurs when a woman's milk ducts get clogged, causing a back-up of milk and a prime location for bacteria to grow and infection to set in. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), mastitis occurs in 2 to 9-1/2 percent of of breastfeeding women, most commonly between the second and third weeks postpartum, as the mother's milk supply comes in and adjusts to meet her baby's needs. The ACOG clinical review on breastfeeding states that mastitis is "manifested by a sore, reddened area on one breast and often is accompanied by chills, fever and malaise. The fever can be as high as 40 ̊degrees C," or 104 degrees F, which is something I can definitely attest to. In every case of mastitis that I had, my fever was at least that high and it seems to completely wipe you out — that's the "malaise" they so nonchalantly refer to.

Prevention

The first step in dealing with the dreaded curse of mastitis is definitely prevention. I can sheepishly admit that I pretty much invited mastitis to attack me when I hit up two weddings and a baby shower in the weekend after my son was born. No sleep plus not enough water plus giving birth equals prime time for illness to strike. The most important thing a breastfeeding mother can do to stop mastitis from occurring in the first place is to ensure adequate rest and hydration. Obviously, easier said than done, but don't be a fool like I was — lay low if you can while your milk supply gets more established. And always have a drink of water handy when you're nursing your baby.

Early recognition

The second key in dealing with mastitis is recognizing the early symptoms and catching it, hopefully, before infection sets in. If you notice that breastfeeding has become painful, almost like a shooting pain down your breast when the baby is nursing, check your breasts carefully for reddened, hardened areas. Mastitis usually begins with a clogged duct, which you can spot as a hardened, red "lump" that is painful to the touch.

Treatment

The moment you suspect mastitis, treat that sucker. Hop in the shower and massage the affected area in the heat of the shower spray, or pile as many hot washcloths as you can take on the area and massage it to try to break up the clogged duct. Continue to nurse your infant from the affected breast as much as possible, as nursing is necessary to help it more effectively drain out. You can also take an over-the-counter dose of ibuprofen to help ease the pain and swelling.

If you start to run a fever, you will need to call your healthcare provider to be seen for a visit, as you will most likely require a round of antibiotics to fully resolve the infection. Unfortunately, it's been my experience that once you have mastitis, you can be more prone to "catching" it again — so be sure to keep on the lookout for the early warning signs and get treated early enough before you (and your baby) see any negative effects.

More on breastfeeding

Breastfeeding and medical conditions
Breastfeeding myths: From low milk-supply to diet
Why you should breastfeed your toddler

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