Breast Infection: Causes and Treatment

Breast-feeding is associated with an increased incidence of breast infection during the first month after delivery. This problem is much less common in the western countries owing to improved hygiene and changes in breast-feeding patterns.

It is not clear whether the germs that cause the infection come from the mother's skin or the baby's mouth. Breast infection causes pain, redness and swelling in the breast; fever may also occur. A course of antibiotics is the main method of treatment. The doctor may arrange an ultrasound scan to see whether there is any pus in the breast; this can be removed easily using a needle and a syringe. The inflammation should then resolve with antibiotics.

If an abscess forms, surgery may be needed to drain it. This can be performed under local or general anaesthetic. The pus is evacuated, and the cavity of the abscess is packed with a dressing soaked in an antiseptic. The dressing is changed daily until the wound is healed; this takes between one and two weeks.

It is important to remember that women can continue to breast-feed, and that this helps to resolve the infection more quickly. Alternatively, gentle massaging of the affected breast also encourages drainage of the infected segment.

Very rarely, breast inflammation can be a sign of malignancy, especially in post-menopausal women. A breast specialist should see any woman over the age of 40 years presenting with breast inflammation. She should then have a mammogram to exclude a rare type of cancer called 'inflammatory carcinoma'; this tumour is very aggressive and has a poor outlook.

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