Swollen Breasts

Swollen breasts can be an alarming experience but there are plenty of normal reasons for your breasts to swell. Menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause are some of the natural causes that women experience. Below we will discuss these natural causes and then serious conditions that involve lumps in your breast. We also review a few treatment options - at home and medical - and prepared a free digital checker to help you narrow down the possibilities.

Swollen Breasts Symptoms

Breasts come in all shapes and sizes. With all the ongoing concerns over breast issues, like breast cancer, noticeable swelling is sure to raise alarm. The good news is that there are plenty of reasons why your breasts and change. Often, these changes are the result of normal bodily functions. During certain stages of life, such as during menstrual periods and pregnancy, breast swelling can be expected.

Common accompanying symptoms of swollen breasts

Even if you believe the swelling is normal, it is important to monitor and document swollen breasts symptoms such as the following:

  • Tenderness or soreness
  • Veins in the breast that are more visible
  • Redness or warmth to the touch
  • Feeling of heaviness in your breast
  • Changes in texture to the skin of your breasts
  • Enlarged breasts: Particularly if on only one side
  • Breast pain
  • Itchiness

More serious swollen breasts symptoms

See your doctor promptly if you notice the following symptoms in addition to swelling or lumps in the breast:

  • A new, fixed lump in the breast: Especially one that doesn't change with your menstrual cycle
  • A cracked nipple: Or excessive dryness of your nipple
  • Changes to the color of the nipple or skin around the nipple
  • Changes to the texture of the nipple or skin of the breast: Such as wrinkling, puckering, or dimpling
  • Unexpected nipple discharge

Breast function and structure

Breasts describe the tissue over the pectoral muscles that serve as the mammary gland in women. Breast tissue produces milk along with fatty tissue, and the amount of fat produced by the breast determines its size. The part of the breast that produces milk is made up of 15 to 20 sections. These sections, called lobes, are smaller structures that produce milk. The liquid travels to the nipples through ducts. Breasts also contain connective tissue and ligaments along with nerves, blood vessels, and lymph nodes.

Breast changes throughout life

Obviously, breasts go through a variety of changes throughout your life. It's normal for breasts to change in size, appearance, and shape over time.

Swollen Breasts Causes

Swollen breasts may be a natural occurrence caused by changes in the female body. A traumatic event may cause bruising but is not likely the cause of the swelling. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms; however, see a physician for persistent breast swelling.

Pregnancy

The breast is very sensitive to fluctuations in the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are essential to the menstrual cycle and a woman's reproductive system. Before the beginning of each menstrual cycle, estrogen levels increase, causing the breasts to enlarge and retain water. This results in breast swelling and associated symptoms. Pregnancy can cause hormone fluctuations that can result in breast swelling and tenderness. Breastfeeding can also cause swelling due to infection and engorgement.

  • Mastitis: Infection of the milk ducts of the breast is known as mastitis. Mastitis can result in cracked or blistering nipples that may also cause red streaks on the breast. The inflammation from the infection can cause pain and swelling that is very common among women breastfeeding.
  • Engorgement: This occurs when the breasts become too full of milk. The breasts enlarge and become swollen, pressing against the skin. This can also result in a tight, painful sensation as well.

Menstrual

Hormonal causes are related to your current stage of life or other natural processes.

  • Menopause: A woman's hormone levels change before/during menstrual periods when approaching menopause and after menopause. These changes can lead to swelling from excess fluid, increased amounts of estrogen in the breast ducts, or increased lumps in the breasts.
  • Period: Some women experience very pronounced changes in their breast tissue in response to fluctuation in hormones. These changes are called fibrocystic changes or fibrocystic breasts and can result in multiple, tender, sometimes painful breast lumps. The lumps are either the result of excess growth of fibrous tissue or enlargement of the breast ducts and glands. Fibrocystic changes are noncancerous lumps that often appear right before your menstrual cycle or during.

Breast Growths

Growths or lumps in the breast are not necessarily a sign of cancer. However, there are several distinct symptoms to look out for that could indicate a malignant (cancerous) lump.

  • Cancerous: Breast swelling can be a symptom of breast cancer. Some types of breast cancers result in a hardened lump that results in swelling, and others block lymph vessels that also result in swelling. Any lumps or breast swelling that co-occurs with cracked nipples, nipple discharge, or other nipple changes must be followed-up with your physician.

Medical causes

Medical causes of swollen breasts may be related to the following.

  • Infections: Bacteria found on the skin can enter the breast and cause swelling from infection. Typically, the bacteria enter through a crack in the nipple and infects the fatty tissue.

9 Swollen Breasts Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced swollen breasts. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Breast infection (mastitis)

Mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue that results in breast pain, swelling, warmth and redness of the breast. Mastitis most commonly affects women who are breast-feeding (lactation mastitis), although sometimes this condition can occur in women who aren't breast-feeding.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea, breast pain, signs of breast inflammation like redness, swelling or fever, fever

Symptoms that always occur with breast infection (mastitis): breast pain, signs of breast inflammation like redness, swelling or fever

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Plugged breast duct

If you're making milk faster than it's getting expressed, it can get backed up in the duct. When this happens, the tissue around the duct may become swollen and inflamed and press on the duct, causing a blockage.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: breast pain, breast lump, painful breast lump

Symptoms that never occur with plugged breast duct: fever, breast redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Breast cyst

A breast cyst is a fluid-filled sac (like a tiny balloon) inside the breast. Breast cysts are common in women. They might cause a little pain, but they are usually benign (not cancerous).

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: breast pain, breast lump, painful breast lump, movable breast lump

Symptoms that always occur with breast cyst: breast lump

Symptoms that never occur with breast cyst: armpit lump, fever

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Breast abscess

A breast abscess is a collection of infected fluid, or pus, within the breast that is generally painful, and may cause fever, chills, fatigue, and body aches.

A breast abscess is a complication of mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue, that develops most commonly in breastfeeding women. ..

Fibrocystic breast changes

Fibrocystic change is a generalized term used to describe a variety of benign changes in the breast. Symptoms of this condition are breast swelling or pain, as well as nodules, lumpiness, or nipple discharge.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: breast lump, hard breast lump, nipple discharge, rope-like breast lump

Symptoms that always occur with fibrocystic breast changes: breast lump

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Premenstrual syndrome

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a condition that can produce emotional and physical symptoms in women in the days leading up to their menstrual cycle. Common symptoms include bloating, cramping, headaches, irritability, fatigue, and sleep and appetite changes. These symptoms..

Non-specific breast pain

Nonspecific breast pain, also called mastalgia or mastodynia, refers to tenderness or pain in the breast with no obvious cause. It almost always proves to have a benign (non-cancerous) cause.

Breast pain is most common in women aged 35 to 50 and still experiencing menstruation. Fibrocystic changes are common in this age group, where tiny, fluid-filled sacs form within breast tissue and might be felt as small, tender, but non-cancerous lumps.

Birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, caffeine, and soy can cause breast tenderness in women of any age. A breast infection can cause painful lumps.

A medical provider should be seen, in order to rule out any serious condition and get treatment for the discomfort.

Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; mammogram or breast ultrasound; and sometimes biopsy.

A breast infection will be treated with antibiotics. Large, painful cysts may have the fluid drained or be surgically removed. Lifestyle improvements regarding diet and exercise are often helpful, as well as adjustments to birth control pills or hormone therapy.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: breast pain, breast swelling, armpit pain

Symptoms that always occur with non-specific breast pain: breast pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Breast cancer

There are several types of breast cancer, depending on the part of the breast where it starts. The most common types are ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), invasive ductal carcinoma and invasive lobular carcinoma.

Women over age 50 with a family history of the disease, and/or certain genetic factors, are most at risk, but anyone can get breast cancer at any age. It is rare in men but does occur.

Symptoms include a lump, thickening, or pain anywhere in the breast or armpit; red, flaky, or irritated breast or nipple skin; nipple discharge; and any area of irregular skin or misshapenness.

Many harmless conditions can cause similar signs, so it is important to see a medical provider about any of these symptoms.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; imaging such as ultrasound, mammogram, or MRI; and sometimes biopsy.

Treatment involves a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

The best prevention is a combination of screening mammograms as recommended by the medical provider, and monthly self-examination.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: breast pain, armpit lump, breast mass or retraction, breast lump, nipple discharge

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Possible pregnancy

The earliest sign of pregnancy is typically a missed period, but many women do experience symptoms shortly after conception:

  • Implantation bleeding may occur after six to twelve days, when the fertilized egg implants itself into the lining of the uterus. This can cause mild cramping with light bleeding or spotting.
  • Fatigue and increased desire to sleep may happen within a week.
  • Breast tenderness can start as soon as one to two weeks.
  • Nausea ("morning sickness") can occur after two to eight weeks.

If pregnancy is suspected, testing should be done so that proper prenatal care can begin. It's important to avoid some behaviors during pregnancy, such as drinking alcohol or using certain drugs or medications, so an early diagnosis should be made.

Over-the-counter home pregnancy tests are available at any drugstore. A positive test is almost certainly correct, but a negative test in the face of other symptoms may be a false negative and should be tried again after a week.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea or vomiting, stomach bloating, bloody vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding

Symptoms that always occur with possible pregnancy: missed period

Symptoms that never occur with possible pregnancy: painful urination, severe abdominal pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

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Swollen Breasts Treatments and Relief

Swollen breast symptoms should not be dismissed. There are natural causes that are less concerning, but more significant issues will require professional diagnosis and treatment. For cyclical swelling, at-home remedies may help.

At-home treatments

You can address your swollen breast symptoms at home by trying the following.

  • Exercise: Regular, vigorous exercise will help prepare the body for changes and maintain adequate blood flow throughout the body. Ice or heat: Apply heat or ice (covered in a cloth or bag) to your breasts every 15 minutes.
  • Ice or heat: Apply heat or ice (covered in a cloth or bag) to your breasts every 15 minutes.
  • Clothing: A properly fitting bra, worn both day and night, will help reduce swelling.
  • Maintain a proper diet: Avoid caffeine and minimize fat intake to limit breast swelling and tenderness.
  • Pain medication: NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are widely accepted forms of medications designed to reduce swelling and pain.

When to see a doctor

Contact your doctor to see if advanced treatments are required, particularly if you experience:

  • High fever: Especially while breastfeeding
  • Tender/swollen lymph nodes in the armpit
  • Swelling: Especially if combined with redness, tenderness, and breasts feeling hot to the touch
  • New or changing lumps in the breasts
  • Discharge from the nipple

Medical treatments

While it is a good idea to contact a physician for swollen breasts, general swelling associated with pregnancy, breastfeeding, or the menstrual cycle may be relieved with the basic recommended steps at home. However, if those do not provide relief, your physician may suggest the following.

  • Prescription medications: Infections are often treated with prescribed antibiotics.
  • Hormonal treatment: If your breast swelling is caused by hormonal changes, your doctor may suggest contraceptive methods such as birth control pills. Pills that contain less estrogen may relieve breast swelling and its associated symptoms. However, if your current contraceptive method is the cause of your symptoms, your physician will discuss available alternatives.
  • Surgical procedures: Breast cancer may result in the need to remove a part or all of the breast(s).
  • Cancer treatment: A wide range of medical treatments are often employed to treat various stages of cancer. These medications include hormone-blocking therapy, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Prevention

Awareness of potential complications and issues of the breasts have risen over the past several years. Swelling, while not always a cause for concern, is a symptom worthy of monitoring. Regular self-checks of the breasts is highly recommended to help identify potential issues.

FAQs About Swollen Breasts

Do breasts swell before your period?

Yes, breast swelling in sync with a menstrual cycle is normal. It frequently involves both breasts and is caused by alteration of ducts within the breast tissue. In response to the hormones released just prior to a menstrual period, a woman's body begins some very early changes that prepare it for a child. One of these changes involves the development of breast tissue in preparation for milk production and delivery. This can cause intermittent breast swelling. If you have breast swelling that occurs out of sync with your period, you should seek medical evaluation.

Are swollen breasts a sign of pregnancy?

Yes. Breasts can swell early in pregnancy. They can swell within one or two weeks of pregnancy or become tender. Swollen breasts can also occur closer to birth as the body prepares milk. Breast swelling is one of the most common early signs of pregnancy. If you suspect you are pregnant, you should either seek medical evaluation or take an over-the-counter pregnancy test.

Why do I only have one swollen breast?

One swollen breast can be a sign of a benign or malignant tumor, a nipple or milk duct infection if you are breastfeeding, or cyclical changes. If you have one swollen breast that does not swell in sync with your menstrual period, you should consider being examined by your physician.

Can swollen breasts be a result of breastfeeding (breast engorgement)?

Yes, breastfeeding can lead to mastitis or swelling of the breast from infection, usually from a baby's mouth. The most common and appropriate treatment is to continue to breastfeed and take anti-inflammatory pain medication, keep your infant's gums clean, and perhaps ask your physician about an antibiotic.

When should you seek medical attention for swollen breasts?

When swelling persists out of sync with your period or is accompanied by a fever, pus, or redness, you should see a physician. Swelling of both breasts is less worrisome than swelling of one breast. If you have other symptoms like a prolonged cough, fever, or chills, you should seek medical attention. If you have a diffuse rash or bleeding from the nipple you should also seek medical attention.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Swollen Breasts

  • Do you feel pain when you urinate?
  • Are you sexually active?
  • When was your last menstrual period?
  • Do you currently use estrogen as a hormone replacement therapy?

Self-diagnose with our free if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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References

  1. Premenstrual breast changes. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated Jan. 7, 2019. MedlinePlus Link
  2. Boakes E, Woods A, Johnson N, Kadoglou N. Breast Infection: A Review of Diagnosis and Management Practices. Eur J Breast Health. 2018;14(3):136-143. Published July 1, 2018. NCBI Link
  3. Breast Tumors. National Breast Cancer Foundation. National Breast Cancer Foundation Link
  4. Breast Cancer Signs and Symptoms. American Cancer Society Link. Updated Sept. 22, 2017. American Cancer Society Link
  5. Breast Cyst. National Breast Cancer Foundation Link. National Breast Cancer Foundation Link
  6. Breast self-exam. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus Link. Updated Jan. 7, 2019. MedlinePlus Link