Breast abscess

A breast abscess is a painful, pus-filled lump that develops under the skin of your breast.

Key points

  1. Breast abscess are is common in women who are breastfeeding, but can also occur in women who are not breastfeeding.
  2. They are mostly caused by an infection, where bacteria gets into your breast through a sore or cracked nipple, or a nipple piercing.
  3. See your doctor if your breast is red, swollen or sore. 
  4. The main treatment for a breast abscess is to drain away the pus from the abscess. 

What causes breast abscesses?

undefinedMost abscesses are caused by a bacterial infection. They are often linked to mastitis, an inflammation of your breast tissue, particularly the milk ducts and glands if you are breastfeeding. 

Infections can occur when bacteria from the skin's surface or baby's mouth enter the milk ducts through a break or crack in the skin of the nipple, or through a milk duct opening. If the infection is not treated, an abscess can form. 

Women who are not breastfeeding can also develop a breast abscess if bacteria enters the breast through a sore or cracked nipple, or a nipple piercing.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast abscesses?

Breast abscesses are hard, painful lumps in the breast that may also:

  • be red or swollen
  • feel hot
  • have pus or discharge from the nipple
  • be associated with a fever (high temperature), chills and a general feeling of unwellness.
Always visit your GP if you notice any changes to your breasts, such as a breast lump or discharge (leaking fluid) from your nipples. In some cases, such symptoms could be a sign of breast cancer.

How are breast abscesses diagnosed?

See your doctor if your breast is red or swollen. If your doctor thinks you have a breast abscess, they may perform an aspiration of the lump to confirm that it is an abscess. This involves placing a needle in the swollen area, to check if the lump is filled with pus. Sometimes breastfeeding women develop cysts that are filled with milk-like fluid. This is not a breast abscess. 

Your doctor may also send you for an ultrasound scan of the breast to confirm whether or not the pain and swelling is caused by an abscess.

How are breast abscesses treated?

The main treatment for a breast abscess is to drain away the pus from the abscess. To do this, a local anaesthetic medicine is injected to numb the skin over your infected breast tissue, and using a needle and syringe, the pus is drained.

If the abscess is large, it needs a bigger cut to let the pus drain out. After the infected area has been drained, it may be left open and packed with sterile gauze or closed with a small tube left in so the pus can drain out. 

Your doctor may also prescribe a course of antibiotics, which you must take as directed. 

You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the pain and fever. These medicines are considered safe to be used by breastfeeding mothers. 

Can I breastfeed with a breast abscess?

Breastfeeding can normally continue unless you are feeling very unwell, the abscess is very close to the nipple or you have had an incision to remove the abscess that makes feeding impossible.

If you are breastfeeding, it's important to keep emptying your breasts regularly by feeding your baby or expressing

Tips to help with breastfeeding with an abscess

  • Before breastfeeding, place a warm, wet face cloth over your breast for about 15 minutes. Try this at least 3 times a day.
  • As you feed, gently massage your whole breast from the outer edge towards the nipple to stimulate milk flow and help relieve blocked ducts.
  • Pump or hand express a small amount of breast milk before breastfeeding if your breasts are too full with milk or if it hurts too much to feed. This will make your breasts less full and may make it easier for your baby to feed.
  • Try feeding from the healthy breast. Then, after your milk is flowing, breastfeed from the affected breast until it feels soft.

Learn more

Mastitis and breast abscesses Ministry of Health, NZ

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in Hawke’s Bay since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. She is looking forward to further study with Otago University in public health to learn about how we can reduce preventable disease and inequalities.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP, Hawke's Bay DHB Last reviewed: 20 Oct 2020