What is a Breast Abscess?
A breast abscess can be defined as a localised, painful pus-filled lump that develops beneath the skin of the breast. It most commonly occurs in women who are breastfeeding, but can also affect non-breastfeeding women aged 15 to 45 years.
Causes of a Breast Abscess
A breast abscess is usually caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria enter through a crack or rupture in the nipple or skin of the breast resulting in a breast infection known as mastitis. This is an inflammation of the breast tissue, milk glands, or ducts in breastfeeding women. An abscess is an empty space in the breast that fills with pus as a result of the infected milk ducts.
Signs and Symptoms of a Breast Abscess
Some of the common signs and symptoms of a breast abscess include:
- Pain in the breast
- A swelling or lump in your breast
- Warmth, tenderness, and redness in the breast area
- Fever, chills and a general feeling of malaise
- Unusual nipple discharge
- Enlarged or tender lymph nodes in the armpit near the affected breast
Diagnosis of a Breast Abscess
Your doctor will assess your symptoms, take your medical history, and perform a thorough physical examination of your breast to check for lumps or abscesses. If a lump is suspected, your doctor may recommend an aspiration biopsy in which a fine needle is inserted and fluid from the suspicious area is withdrawn for microscopic analysis to check for infection. Your doctor may also recommend a breast ultrasound to confirm whether the swelling and pain is the result of a breast abscess.
Treatment for a Breast Abscess
In order to treat a breast abscess, your doctor may employ different methods of treatment, such as antibiotics, self-care measures, and in some cases surgical drainage of pus accumulation.
- Antibiotics: Broad-spectrum antibiotics, such as penicillin, erythromycin, and cephalosporins are used to treat the infection. The most common type of bacterium that causes a breast abscess is Staphylococcus aureus.
- Self-Care Measures: This method of treatment involves:
- Taking ample rest
- Drinking plenty of fluids to keep the body hydrated
- Using cold compresses to relieve pain and discomfort
- Taking common pain medications such as paracetamol or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to relieve pain and fever
- Surgery: Minimally invasive surgery may be employed to drain pus from the abscess. This can be achieved in two ways:
- Ultrasound-guided fine-needle aspiration: In this method, a local anaesthetic is used to numb the skin over the breast abscess. Ultrasound scanning is used to locate the site and depth of the abscess and guide a fine needle into the area to drain or aspirate the pus.
- Surgical drainage: Large abscesses may require a surgical incision to drain the pus out. This involves administration of local anaesthetic to numb the skin over the breast abscess and making a small cut in the abscess lump. After draining the infected area, your doctor may close the incision with a small tube in place to allow drainage of any additional pus.
Prevention of a Breast Abscess
Some of the measures that can help in preventing breast abscesses include:
- Use moisturizers on your nipples and areolae to prevent cracking or drying
- Ensure that your clothing or bra is not uncomfortably tight
- Wash your breasts regularly with mild soap and water and dry them thoroughly with a clean, soft towel
- Before you breastfeed, put a warm, wet flannel on your breasts for around 10 to 15 minutes at least 3 times a day
- Ensure that your baby is latching on correctly while breastfeeding
- Breastfeed often to encourage your baby to empty the milk completely, or express milk with a pump if you feel your breasts are too full
- After breastfeeding, make sure to wipe the nipples and areolae gently with cotton that has been immersed in water that was boiled and then cooled, or in breast milk
- After each feeding, allow the nipples to naturally dry in the air
- Practice proper breast hygiene to keep the breastfeeding area healthy