I am a bit of a mastitis warrior—a title I don’t take pride in wearing, and yet one I have definitely earned.
Here’s my story: I developed mastitis with my first baby that went undetected, and because I had no idea what to even look for (hello #firsttimemom), I didn’t even realize what was going on myself. Unfortunately, I ended up hospitalized as a result of the mastitis, and the infection caused severe damage to my milk ducts.
Although I recovered and went on to successfully continue to nurse my daughter until she was 15 months old, the damage to my milk ducts did affect me with all my future babies because I was more prone to clogged ducts. My bouts of mastitis got progressively worse with each baby and by baby #5, I had experienced mastitis well over 20 times. It was a bit of a nightmare, I admit, and I’d love to spare any other mother the experience of going what I went through, which is why I am here to give you the lowdown on all things mastitis and clogged milk duct prevention.
What are Clogged Ducts?
First up—what exactly is a clogged milk duct? A clogged milk duct is exactly what it sounds like. In a lactating person, milk ducts are small tubes that extend from the lobes to the nipple to deliver breast milk into the waiting mouth of your baby.
Like any tube, the milk ducts can be blocked by a variety of factors, like a bra that is too tight or if your baby isn’t latching well drain the milk properly, or even if you’re not drinking enough water to help move the milk flow through the ducts. Many people experience clogged ducts while breastfeeding and especially in the early days when their milk supply is still adjusting, as they may overproduce milk and be more prone to clogs.
Some lactating people are also just more prone to clogs, based on their physical anatomy and the make-up of their milk. I found out, for example, that I tend to make extra-fatty milk, which clogs more frequently. Who knew, right?)
What is Mastitis?
If you aren’t able to unblock the clogged duct, the milk can back up in the duct and bacteria can accumulate, causing an infection.
The symptoms of a clogged milk duct that has developed into mastitis include:
- Pain and tenderness in your breast
- The pain may be more intense when you’re pumping or nursing your baby
- A hard spot that you can feel in your breast, that may be painful to touch
- Redness in the area
How to Treat Mastitis at Home
Now that we know that mastitis can happen as a result of a clogged milk duct, the next step is knowing how to prevent and treat a clogged duct if you have one. The very first step is always prevention. If you’re breastfeeding, it’s extremely important that you stay well-rested and well-hydrated. Every single time I have had mastitis, it’s been an almost direct result of doing too much and not drinking enough water throughout the day.
Secondly, if you notice that you’re getting a lot of clogged ducts, and/or your breasts feel frequently engorged or like they are not emptying fully, your baby may not be latching or nursing properly. You should seek the help of a lactation consultant to ensure that your baby is latching correctly and draining the breast appropriately if that happens.
Aside from prevention, here’s how to clear a clogged milk duct:
Keep nursing your baby as much as possible: If you’re nursing, continue to offer the breast to your baby as much as possible. Breastfeeding is the #1 way to clear a clogged duct. I won’t lie—it will be painful—there’s no way around that. It helps if you place a warm compress to the area as you nurse and have a partner help you massage it while your baby nurses so you can help drain the area more effectively too.
Stay on your pumping schedule: If you’re pumping, maintain your normal pumping schedule. It’s important not to skip any pumping sessions just because it hurts. Engorgement will only make the clog worse.
Take Ibuprofen, if your doctor is OK with it: If your doctor approves, you can reduce inflammation and pain and treat a fever with Ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil).
Apply warmth and massage the area: Apply hot compresses and massage the heck out of the affected area as frequently as you can stand it. I would often do this in the shower, working my way from the top of the duct to the bottom to try to drain the clog out.
Try a vibrator: Some women have reported using a vibrator to massage the duct and clear it out. I have not tested that method, but I say, if it works, it works. Amazon also sells a lactation massager specifically for this purpose.
Consider Lecithin supplements: As I mentioned earlier, some people make “fattier” milk—I found out I was one of those people and a lactation consultant recommended I try Sunflower Lecithin supplement pills to help think my milk.
These ended up being a game-changer for me when I was an exclusive pumper (which made me even more prone to clogged ducts), and I highly encourage you to speak with your own doctor about taking this supplement if you find yourself having frequent clogged ducts.
Explore essential oils: I also used duct support drops and applied a Citrus Blend essential oil to the affected area anytime I had a clogged duct, and they were very effective and helped me avoid mastitis several times with my most recent baby.
Rest, rest, and rest: The second you feel that clogged duct, it is essential that you stop whatever you’re doing, enlist help however you can find it, and rest. Trust me when I say I learned the hard way that if you don’t, you’ll pay for it with days of being out of commission, rather than hours.
When to See a Doctor
You should call your doctor for further evaluation for mastitis or a clogged duct if you experience:
- A fever (anything over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is classified as a fever by the CDC)
- Increasing pain in your breast
- If the clogged duct becomes raised in appearance, opens, or has any drainage
- If you have any other symptoms, like diarrhea, or your baby seems fussier than usual
- If you are unable to clear the clog on your own
- If your baby develops white spots on their tongue—if you are being treated with antibiotics, sometimes thrush can develop in your baby if they are nursing
The good news is that mastitis is treatable, so if you are unable to clear the clogged duct on your own and it develops into an infection, your doctor can prescribe you antibiotics to get rid of the bacteria.
The bad news is that for some moms, mastitis can be a reoccurring problem, so whenever possible, try to investigate the root cause of the mastitis in the first place so you can correct it. And of course, stay hydrated and rested—the two key forms of ammo against the evil that is mastitis! Solider on, mamas.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you unclog a milk duct?
The best way to unclog a milk duct is to massage the area with a warm compress. You can also try massaging the affected area while in a hot shower. Additionally, get plenty of water and rest and if your doctor okays it, ibuprofen may be able to help reduce inflammation as well.
What does a clogged duct feel like?
In the early stages, a clogged duct can feel like a hard pebble in your breast. It can also be very sore, painful, and appear reddened and swollen.
Will a clogged duct resolve on its own?
Sometimes, they can, but more often, they can progress to mastitis, which is dangerous and very painful. It’s best to take care of a clogged duct as early as possible. And if you’re prone to getting clogged ducts, consider talking to your care provider about some supplements that can help.
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Reviewed by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN…