It starts with a burning sensation in the breast. Then, redness and tenderness followed by aches, fever and fatigue. It feels like the flu but there’s no vaccine for this illness. For some women, like Jenny York, it happens all too often.
“Mastitis is the worst,” said York, a mother of three who has endured the painful condition while breastfeeding each of her children and wants other mothers to know when to get help for mastitis.
“I know right away what it is,” said York.
But that wasn’t the case when York breastfed her first baby, Madeline, now 6. York was relishing her perfect newborn daughter and breastfeeding was going well, a relief to the new mom. Madeline’s tiny hands would grab her fingers tightly while she was breastfeeding, her eyes cast upward. But then, York’s breast began to feel sore and hard. She thought it was a clogged milk duct, a common issue that arises when milk builds up in the ducts. Soon, the symptoms worsened and the pain intensified. Her breast was red. Chills and body aches wracked the new mom. York headed to see her provider who diagnosed her with mastitis.
“It’s not something that I really knew anything about,” said York. “Mastitis is not one of those conditions that are readily talked about and you just don’t think it’s going to happen to you.”
Get help quickly if you think you might have a bacterial infection
The body is full of naturally-occurring bacteria. These tiny microbes are on our skin, in our nose and mouth, and in our gut. Even brand new, tiny babies have bacteria in their mouths. If that bacteria gets into a milk duct, through a crack in the nipple for example, it’s like a perfect storm.
“Milk ducts are breeding grounds for bacteria,” said Allison Lock, physician assistant and instructor of breast surgery at the CU Medicine Breast Care Clinic at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital.
If bacteria settle in and multiply, mastitis symptoms appear. They may include a red, triangle-shaped patch on the breast, a palpable knot or mass, engorgement and flu-like symptoms including muscle aches and a fever.
“It can happen any time and it comes on very quickly,” said Lock. “It’s not something you want to miss.”
York knows first-hand. She got mastitis after Madeline, Blakely and Hudson were born. The third time around, she was not surprised when she developed symptoms. She knew that if you have it once, you’re likely to get it again. As instructed, York emptied her breasts frequently and placed warm compresses on the affected area. She diligently took the antibiotics prescribed by Lock. But after two weeks, York was back in the office.
Lock prescribed her another round of antibiotics and for a while, York was symptom free until she began feeling sharp pains in her breast.
“It was intense,” said York.
If left untreated, mastitis can lead to an abscess
Lock was concerned that York had developed an abscess, a collection of fluid and pus that forms a hard lump. It was not something that could wait. She wanted to do an ultrasound, and quickly.
“The longer you wait to treat it, the worse it can get,” said Lock. Depending on the severity, an abscess may need to be drained or possibly surgically removed.
York immediately loaded the kids in the car and headed to UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital, a place she had become familiar with recently.
“Blakely makes herself at home and knows all the nurses by name,” said York.
Despite the stressful situation, the three children were, “perfect angels,” said Lock. “Our team recognizes that these are new moms who are exhausted, sick, frustrated and in pain.”
“No one minds when little ones show up in the office,” she added.
York didn’t have an abscess – a relief to both patient and provider.
Breast Care Clinic: help for mastitis
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CU Medicine Breast Care Clinic at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital is open and able to serve you, either at the clinic or through a Virtual Visit.
Please call the clinics directly or visit MyHealthConnection to schedule an appointment for both in person and virtual health.
New Patients: 720.516.2120
1500 Park Central Drive, Suite 203
Highlands Ranch, Colorado 80129
“I was thankful I could get in right then and not have to wait several days to see Allison,” said York.
Lock prescribed another round of antibiotics that did the trick. Finally, York was symptom free.
There’s no full-proof way to prevent mastitis, but Lock recommends a few things that may help stave it off:
- Empty breasts frequently
- Clean pumping equipment regularly
- Use well-fitted breast equipment
- Employ good breastfeeding techniques like latching at a good angle so all the milk from all parts of the breast is released
- Get plenty of rest, drink fluids and eat healthful food