Every woman will have swollen or painful breasts at some point in her life. The physiological changes that occur in each major stage of life can have dramatic effects on the breasts. At times, tender breasts can also be accompanied by redness of the nipples or areola. The swelling in the breast can cause discomfort for the women. Most of the time, swelling is not a major concern, but it can be an indicator of devastating illnesses that can be fatal.
Causes of Swollen Breasts
1. Common Causes
There are many common causes of tender and swollen breasts.
- Puberty. Puberty is often the first time women have problems with their growing breasts. Many girls feel temporary pain because of the hormonal changes in their bodies. There is no reason to worry unless the pain becomes unbearable.
- Menstruation. Most women experience changes in their breasts during the menstruation cycle. The breasts often become tender and swollen before their periods begin. This is caused by the increase of the hormones called estrogen and progesterone during this time of the month. The tenderness usually diminishes within the first few days of the menstruation cycle or when it is over.
- Pregnancy. Swollen breasts are one of the first signs a woman notices when she becomes pregnant. If pregnancy is a possibility, the woman should talk to her doctor as soon as possible. Again, the tenderness is caused by the hormones from pregnancy.
- Breastfeeding. If a woman chooses to breastfeed, she could experience swelling as a result of milk production and secretion. Sometimes, the baby sucking the breasts can cause temporary swelling. There is no reason for concern.
- Menopause. These changes are caused by hormones and are not considered a serious issue unless it is accompanied by excessive pain or any fluid secretion. If that occurs, contact a doctor as soon as possible.
- Contraceptives. Women who use oral contraceptive pills can experience problems with their breasts because of the hormonal imbalance that pills can cause. This is usually not a reason for concern, but if it happens with unusual bleeding, bloating, headache and uneasiness, the woman should seek immediate medical care.
2. Medical Conditions
- Breast Lumps. Sometimes, tender and swollen breasts is caused by lumps in the breast that are benign. These lumps can form during the process of lactation. They may also be a cyst and not a serious condition. Lumps in the breast should always be evaluated by a doctor.
- Breast Infection. Though few women realize this, they can develop an infection in the breast caused by an injury, lactation, and unhygienic habits. If the tenderness is caused by an infection, it may be accompanied by redness, pain, and pus secretion.
- Lymphatic Infections. The lymphatic system drains blood from outside of the blood vessels in a network that is all over the body. When the nodes become swollen due to an infection, the area around it becomes red and tender, also. If the lymphatic infection happens in the breast nodes, inflammation and tenderness can occur. Women should contact a doctor as soon as possible if a lymphatic infection occurs in her breasts as it can be fatal if not treated.
- Mammary Duct Ectasia. This happens when a milk duct becomes dilated, the walls thicken and then the duct fills with fluid. The duct can become clogged. Some women have no symptoms, but others experience nipple discharge, tenderness or inflammation near the blocked duct. This condition usually improves without a doctor’s treatment, but if the problem persists, antibiotics or surgery may be needed.
- Mastitis. This is a bacterial infection and can cause inflammation around the nipple and fever. The woman may feel pain or a burning sensation and the breasts may be warm to the touch. Most women report feeling flu-like symptoms and then notice the swelling of the breasts. If this happens, a doctor needs to be contacted and will often prescribe antibiotics.
- Fibrocystic Breasts. This is not a disease, but rather breasts that are made up of a tissue that feels lumpy or like a rope. Many women will experience this at some point in their lives and it can cause pain, tenderness and lumpiness. Often, this will happen in the upper and outer area of the breasts and seem to be more likely right before menstruation. A doctor needs to be consulted if the pain or lumps worsen and this persists after the cycle is over. Besides swelling and tenderness, women who have fibrocystic breasts may have a green or brown discharge and fluctuating breast sizes. Doctors believe that reproductive hormones cause fibrocystic breasts.
- Breast Fat Necrosis. After surgery or an injury, a lump may develop in the breast. These lumps are caused by bruised tissue and are called breast fat necrosis. These lumps are benign and this condition does not cause breast cancer. It can cause pain and tenderness in the breast. Some drainage may occur in the nipple of the breast with the lump or the skin may dimple. A breast biopsy may cause this condition. It is hard to diagnose because it can look like other breast lumps.
- Breast Cancer. If a woman experiences chronic and severe pain in the breast, she needs to contact her doctor immediately. Swollen breasts, along with severe pain, could be a symptom of breast cancer. The woman may also have pain in the upper arm, painful nipples or areola, and lumps in the breasts.
Treatments for Swollen Breasts
1. Visit a Doctor. Women should see their doctor to ease the discomfort and to be sure their symptoms are not signs of something serious. Their doctor will decide if further testing is needed to determine the cause of their swelling and tenderness. After seeing the test result, a treatment program can be designed for the woman.
2. Use Home Remedies. There are some simple but effective ways to release breast pain or swelling, including diet changes, uses of medicine, etc.
- Relaxation. Anxiety can cause changes in the body, so relaxation techniques could relieve tenderness in the breasts.
- Low-fat Diet. Eating a low fat diet may help with swelling that is caused by hormones. Eat less meat, cheese and pastries to alleviate swelling.
- Well-fitted Bra. Every woman, especially those with large breasts, needs to wear bras that are well-fitting. Wear one during exercise, while sleeping or during the times of the month when the breasts are especially tender.
- Cold or Warm Compresses. Using warm or cold compresses can ease the pain and tenderness in breasts.
- Limiting Caffeine Intake. Though studies are inconclusive, some women report less tenderness in their breasts when they limit the amount of caffeine they consume.
- Medicine and Vitamins. There are different medicines and vitamins that women can try to relieve the pain from swollen breasts. Over the counter medications like Tylenol, Advil or Motrin can alleviate the tenderness. Depo-Provera is a prescription medication that may be taken for premenstrual breast tenderness. This medicine works by eliminating the period. Another option might be Danazol, a male hormone may be used in severe cases, but it does have possible bad side effects. If this does not work, bromocriptine or tamoxifen could be prescribed. Vitamin E can also reduce pain.
3. Check Breasts Regularly. Women should check their breasts regularly for lumps and changes that may indicate problems.
When to See a Doctor
If a woman develops any new lumps, has swollen breasts constantly, or if there are changes in existing lumps, she should contact her doctor as soon as possible. Other reasons to contact a health care provider would be if unilateral lumps are found in the breast or if there is a bloody or brown discharge from the nipple. If the pain is keeping the woman from sleeping and no changes in diet or exercise have helped, it is time to contact a doctor. Any woman who does not know how to do a self-exam, who is 40 or older, or who has never had a mammogram should also visit her doctor soon.