Nipple and Breast Wellness: Your Complete Guide to Understanding Health Concerns and Normal Signs

Nipple and Breast Wellness: Your Complete Guide to Understanding Health Concerns and Normal Signs

It’s normal for your breasts to change throughout your lifetime. Age, hormones, medicines, and undetected medical issues can change the shape, and cause lumps and fluid leakage. 

While some changes are completely harmless, some point to more serious possibilities like breast cancer. In fact, the symptoms for minor and huge breast problems run similar. Fortunately, non-cancerous breast problems go away on their own or can be easily treated. 

But you should be on the lookout for the symptoms and know when to go for a nipple and breast health checkup.  

Understanding Normal Nipple and Breast Health

To monitor for signs, you need to understand the anatomy of your breasts. The anatomy is slightly different for those assigned female at birth (AFAB) versus the ones assigned male at birth (AMAB). 

The visible area of your breast contains your nipples and areola. The areola is the darker area on your breast surrounding the nipples. Nipples and the areola tend to have the same color or similar shades. Your nipples are the slightly perky skin at the center of the areola and your breasts. 

Nipples vary in size and shape, as do the areola and the entire breast. Your nipples can be inverted, swollen, or flat. Some people might have swollen and inverted nipples or other interesting combinations. 

Your nipples have hundreds of nerve endings, making them sensitive to both pain and pleasure. As such, it can be hard to figure out the baseline and if any pain or discharge you are experiencing is normal or not. 

The rest of the breast is several kinds of tissues including ones for producing milk, fatty ones, and connective tissues which hold your breast together. 

Signs and Symptoms to Monitor For Good Nipple and Breast Health

The signs and symptoms for manageable breast problems can be close to more serious issues. You should be 

1. Breast Pain

Pain and pleasure seem to be concentrated in the same area on the breast. The nerves around the nipples and areola contribute to both. Women and even men seem to enjoy nipple stimulation to some extent, using adult nipple toys at times to feel the full extent of it. 

Meanwhile, nipple pain is a common occurrence for women, with or without external causes. Other than the discomfort and soreness, you might feel a constant itch, redness, and a change in the texture of your nipples. 

Nipple pain can be caused by something as simple as the brush of harsh clothes. It can also be the result of hormonal changes like menstruation, pregnancy, and allergies. 

Over-the-counter medication is enough to relieve nipple pain. But, if the pain is consistent and lasts for days, a checkup is a good idea. Rare as it is, nipple pain can point towards breast cancer, though it’s accompanied by lumps and discharge. 

Some women have particularly lumpy breast tissue that can cause them pain at times. Breast cancer actually doesn’t cause pain until it reaches the advanced stage. 

So, nipple and breast pain is nothing to panic about, but it doesn’t hurt to get an ultrasound or a mammogram if you feel there is something weird about the pain. 

2. Discharge

Nipple discharge during pregnancy and breastfeeding is common. While many believe the fluid only looks milky white, it can actually be clear, brown, yellow, or gray. This can be normal or a sign of a deeper issue. So, color isn’t always the best indicator. 

If the discharge is pink or bloody, it’s an immediate cause of concern. Yellow discharge can be from some sort of internal infection.

Greenish or brown discharge can be mastitis. It happens when a milk duct beneath the nipple grows large and fills with fluid without any way to expel it. 

If you’re experiencing nipple discharge, you should also note whether it’s thin, thick, or greasy. It can help your healthcare provider determine the cause faster. 

3. Appearance and Skin Changes

Your breasts will change their shape and appearance throughout your life. There’s no need to panic every time it happens if you know what to expect. 

For example, your breasts are more swollen right before or after menstruation. You might even find lumps in your breasts because it’s storing extra fluid. Doctors typically recommend coming back at a different time to see if the lumps are still there. 

During pregnancy, your breast naturally gets heavier. They feel lumpy because you’re getting more glands capable of producing milk. 

If you’re taking hormone therapy, injections, or birth control pills, your breasts may get denser or tighter. Getting the correct diagnosis with a mammogram can get harder if medication is involved. 

Your breasts go through huge hormonal changes as you approach menopause. So, they feel more lumpy and tender. But once you reach menopause, the pain, lumps, and discharge can completely stop. You’re free. 

4. Lumps

The biggest symptom to monitor for breast health problems is lumps. Fortunately, lumps for non-cancerous reasons are more common than cancerous ones. 

As mentioned, cancerous lumps actually don’t hurt often. So, if you have a hard lump in your breast with an odd shape that doesn’t hurt when you squeeze it, you should be concerned. Contact your healthcare provider immediately. 

From the outside, the area of the lump may change color, looking reddish. The skin might also feel flaky. The skin might also have dimples. Similarly, the lump might stay on for 4 to 6 weeks, which is a big sign. 

But a hard lump doesn’t always mean cancer. It can be a benign mass. Similar to cysts, these masses are seen in women going through puberty to those in their twenties. Oftentimes, the source is birth control pills. 

Doctors typically recommend ultrasound to treat benign masses.

Another type of lump is caused by cysts. In this case, the lump is mostly filled with fluids. They can be hard or soft. It’s not unusual for a bunch of cysts to form next to each other. For cysts, hormones appear to be the main culprit. 

Breast cysts mostly cause pain but don’t develop into more serious health issues. While your doctors can’t get rid of the cysts except to let them run their natural course, they can reduce the pain via medical procedures. 

The last common type of lump is a result of mastitis. It’s characterized by breast pain, lumps, and redness. The symptoms can even manifest as fever and chills. 

Mastitis can occur for a couple of reasons including:

  • Blocked and infected milk ducts in pregnant women
  • Smoking which leads to infection around the nipples
  • Diabetes which results in poor blood supply. 

For pregnant women, mastitis is treated with antibiotics and by draining the breast of milk. 

Common Concerns and Misconceptions Around Nipple and Breast Health

While there’s a lot of emphasis on women’s breast cancer, all genders are actually at risk of it. Women actually get benign breast disease more often. 

There’s also lots of fear mongering around breast health problems. For example, you might have heard breast cancer is more common in women with bigger breasts. This is utterly untrue. There is no correlation between size and cancer. 

What’s true is women with bigger breasts might have more problems getting diagnosed. It’s more challenging to examine them. Obesity and density are also known to increase the risk of breast cancer. 

There are also some ridiculous misconceptions like:

  • Breast injury can cause cancer
  • Bras with underwire causes breast cancer
  • Carrying a phone in your bra can cause cancer
  • Men do not get breast cancer
  • Mammograms can cause breast cancer. 

Correlation isn’t always causation. Even the most universally believed confirmation of breast cancer - lumps - doesn’t actually point toward it. Sometimes, lumps can be non-cancerous tumors, fatty tissues, or cysts. 

Similarly, men do get breast cancer and have a 19% higher mortality rate than women. Breast cancer in men isn’t heavily advertised, so they ignore signs, such as a hard lump between the areola and nipples. 

They get diagnosed late to go through proper treatment. 

When to Seek Medical Advice: Preventive Measures and Healthy Practices For Nipple and Breast Health

Set up an appointment with a healthcare provider. Come up with a timeline for how often you should have mammograms. Your provider will suggest checkup dates based on your family and personal medical history. They will also take your age and hormonal changes into account. 

If your family has a history of breast cancer, medical providers will recommend starting screening for it long before the age your family members were diagnosed. 

But if you don’t have a family history or a genetic mutation that puts you at risk of breast cancer, healthcare committees claim you can start screening for it after 50. The older you get, the more you are at risk of developing breast cancer, which is why 50 is the recommended age.

Of course, if you are feeling unusual pain, discomfort, lumps, bloody or odd-colored discharge, you should be setting up an appointment as soon as possible.

You should also be conducting a breast self-exam

It’s as simple as feeling around your breasts. Get familiar with the shape, feel, skin tone, and shade. If there are sudden lumps, the self-exam will alert you. 

Healthcare providers suggest conducting self-exams once a month. If you’re menstruating, you should do a self-exam once your period ends. If you’re well into menopause or have irregular periods, you can choose any time of the month. 

Make sure to mark the date in your calendar. 

As for a professional checkup, there’s no need to be nervous. Your provider first checks the appearance of your breasts, mainly noticing if there’s a difference in shape and size between the pair. They also check for rash, coloring, or discoloration. 

They may check if there’s fluid discharge when your nipples are squeezed lightly. 

They also use the pad of their finger to check for lumps. If they find a lump, they will note its shape and texture. They will check if the lump moves. Benign lumps act differently from cancerous lumps. 

Soft, movable lumps are usually benign or cysts. Hard, odd-structured lumps tend to be cancerous. 

Depending on which one they conclude or for added safety, they might set up a mammogram or ultrasound test for you. 

Final Thoughts

You shouldn’t be dismissive of pain, discharge, or lumps in your breasts. But you shouldn’t go straight to panic mode either. Even when the signs look like breast cancer symptoms, it can turn out to be something proper medication can heal. 

Be proactive with your nipple and breast health. Self-exam yourself once a month. Get familiar with your breasts so you can ring up your doctor when there's cause for concern.

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