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Mastitis: How To Prevent It & Help Yourself (or a Friend) Through It

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Mary Elizabeth Ford, photographed by BELATHÉE PHOTOGRAPHY

It’s the moment so many breastfeeding women dread (especially if you’ve experienced it before). There’s a painful, swollen lump in your breast, followed by chills and other flu-like symptoms. Yep, it’s likely that nasty condition—mastitis—which some women don’t hear about until they are in the throes of it. To help shed some light on what mastitis is, how one can prevent it, treat it, and support a friend through it, we asked Jennifer Lezak, a feeding consultant and international board-certified lactation consultant at LOOM, to give us the 411 on mastitis.

What exactly is mastitis?
“While mastitis can affect any woman, it occurs most often in women who are breastfeeding. Mastitis is a painful inflammation and infection in the breast tissue that can result in breast pain, swelling, warmth, fever, and chills (flu-like symptoms). It can be caused by engorgement, plugged ducts, milk stasis (milk that remains in the breast after breastfeeding or pumping) or just generally letting yourself get run down.”

When are women most vulnerable?
“Mastitis can occur anytime while breastfeeding or trying to wean but typically we see cases of mastitis in the first few months after the baby is born. Most women start feeling better a few weeks after childbirth and start to do more physically, but remembering that you just birthed a baby and need to rest and take care of yourself is important. Stress and fatigue are also classic causes of mastitis.”

What can breastfeeding mothers do to prevent it?
“Prevention is key and easy to do: Rest and empty your breasts! Continuing to empty your breasts of breastmilk on a regular basis either with the baby, hand expression, or a breast pump can help to keep you free of plugged ducts, which can cause mastitis. Avoid restrictive clothing such as bras or tight tops. Vary breastfeeding positions so all ducts are emptied. Not trying to do too much too soon after childbirth, getting enough rest and sleep, and staying hydrated with a good diet are all good ways to keep mastitis at bay.”

If you think you might have mastitis, what are some symptoms to look out for?
“One of the first symptoms you may notice is a plugged duct. That can be described as a possibly painful, reddened, swollen lump on the breast that can be warm and/or hard to the touch. Symptoms can come on gradually or quickly. If you are breastfeeding and feel as though you are getting flu-like symptoms, such as a fever or chills/body aches, it can be a safe assumption that you may have the beginnings of mastitis.”

How can you treat it?
“Catching a plugged duct early, which is typically the first sign, can help save you from a bout of mastitis. Any early signs of a plugged duct should result in your trying to relieve and drain it. Heat, gentle massage, and removing milk from the breast can typically help drain a plugged duct. A mother with recurrent plugged ducts might consider taking something like Lecithin. Lecithin, a common food additive, can sometimes help decrease stickiness to breast milk and therefore help women with recurrent plugged ducts. Cabbage leaves on the breast can also help as they have anti-inflammatory chemicals. My main advice for mother’s who call with early symptoms of mastitis is a simple routine: Heat, Rest, Empty the Breast. Some home remedies can include resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating Vitamin C rich foods or a Vitamin C megadose of 3000/5000 mg/day, Echinacea to help boost your immune system, and Ibuprofen/Motrin for the pain and reducing inflammation. But if symptoms get worse or persist for over 24 hours, I would recommend a trip to your doctor and a possible antibiotic prescription. Waiting to see the doctor once symptoms get worse can result in getting a breast abscess, which while rare, do occur, and can require surgery to drain the site.”

What can friends do to support another friend going through mastitis?
“Offer to help out! Bring over a healthy dinner, clean up around their house, watch the baby after your pal is done breastfeeding so that she can rest or take a nap. Offer to get any medications that may need picking up. Just generally be the good friend you know you are. Lend an ear when your friend feels like crying.”

For more information on lactation support, check out Lesak’s Milkmade LA practice. And keep clicking for additional info from the brains behind L.A.’s beautiful LOOM space, through our Mother pieces on How To Navigate the Postpartum Shift, To Doula? or Not To Doula?, Perfect Meals For The New Mom, and Why We Need To Stop Using The Term “Natural Birth.”

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