One of the problems that breastfeeding moms may face at least once is clogged milk ducts, a painful and uncomfortable condition. The plugged milk ducts also cause a sudden feeling of soreness in the nipples. But how do milk ducts get clogged in the first place?
Here, MomJunction tells you everything that you need to know about clogged milk ducts in the breasts and how to prevent the condition.
What Are Clogged Milk Ducts?
A clogged or plugged milk duct is a condition where the milk ducts become inflamed due to insufficient drainage of milk from the breast (1). Milk ducts are small channels underneath the areola, the dark area around the nipple. The milk produced in the milk lobules moves through the ducts, also called lactiferous ducts, to the breast nipple from where the baby feeds (2). If the milk does not drain out of the nipple in time, the ducts grow inflamed and swollen leading to clogged milk ducts.
Retention of milk in the ducts can happen due to several reasons.
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What Causes Clogged Milk Ducts?
Clogged milk ducts could develop due to the one or more of the following factors (3) (4):
- Weaning your baby suddenly: You must wean your baby gradually over a period of days or weeks depending on the age of the baby and how often you feed. Abrupt weaning can cause accumulation of milk in the breast, increasing the chances of clogged milk ducts.
- Change in feeding schedule: Drastic changes in the feeding schedule can also lead to plugged ducts. So if you have been breastfeeding the baby five times a day and suddenly reduce it to only two feeds a day, then your breasts won’t get drained sufficiently. Too much gap between two breastfeeding sessions can also increase the risk of blocked milk ducts.
- Favoring one breast: Always empty one breast before moving to the other to feed the baby. Favoring one breast all the time, for whatever reason, can increase the risk of a clogged milk duct in the other.
- Tight clothing: A tight bra can create constant pressure on the breast, which can narrow down the milk ducts and make them more prone to blockage.
- Injury to the breast: Sometimes a heavy blow or impact to the breast may damage a milk duct, making it prone to blockage.
Find out more about the signs and symptoms of clogged milk ducts next.
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[ Read: Stages Of Breastfeeding ]
What Are The Symptoms Of Clogged Milk Ducts?
Symptoms that indicate clogged milk ducts include:
- Soreness in the breasts, with a dull pain
- A lump in the breasts, usually around the nipple
- Tenderness and pain while the baby feeds, although the pain subsides after breastfeeding
When the symptoms are severe, go to a doctor.
When to go to the doctor:
The symptoms of clogged milk ducts overlap with other breast-related conditions. Visit a doctor a right away if you notice the following symptoms:
- Pain that seems to intensify over a couple of days
- The lump expands or becomes too hard
- Your breasts redden or turn bluish
- The breasts feel hot to touch
- A clear or yellowish liquid oozes from the nipple
- The nipple collapses inward
Clogged milk ducts is seldom a complex condition and can be resolved right at home.
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How Are Clogged Milk Ducts Treated?
Plugged milk ducts do not need specific medications. Simple home remedies for clogged milk ducts can help alleviate the symptoms (5).
- Increase frequency of breastfeeding: One way to unplug the ducts is to get rid of the excess breast milk. Start by increasing the breastfeeding frequency to at least 8-10 times to drain the breasts properly.
- Pump breast milk: You can also consider expressing milk once every three hours. Pump for 10-15 minutes to ensure optimum relief.
- Massage the breast: Apply warm compresses, and then massage above and over the affected breast before and during breastfeeding or pumping.
- Take a warm shower: Massage the affected breast while under a hot shower or soak the affected breast by leaning over a bowl of warm water.
- Use a warm compress: Soak a washcloth in warm water and place it on the lump for a couple of minutes. Apply warm compresses before you breastfeed or pump to soften the blockage of milk within the ducts.
- Experiment with different breastfeeding positions: Sometimes switching to a different breastfeeding position can provide relief from clogged milk ducts. Try multiple breastfeeding positions till you find the one that helps clear the blockage better.
- Have pain medication if needed: If the soreness and pain in the breast get overwhelming, consult a doctor and take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), which are safe while breastfeeding (6).
- Wear loose clothing: Select a comfortable bra that fits correctly, without putting pressure on your breasts.
- Take adequate rest: Resting helps your body repair the damage faster, thus helping you get quick relief from the clogged milk ducts.
- Have nutritious food with plenty of fluids: Keeping yourself hydrated and nourished mitigates the chances of infection due to clogged milk ducts.
[ Read: Sore Breasts While Breastfeeding ]
Some women have reported relief from clogged milk ducts after taking supplements made from lecithin, which is a type of fat found in plant and animal tissue. Alternative treatment methods include chiropractic adjustment and the use of ultrasound (7). However, it is best to consult a doctor before trying any of these treatment methods.
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What Are The Complications Of Clogged Milk Ducts?
Bacterial invasion of the ducts is a common complication of clogged milk ducts. When plugged milk ducts get infected, it leads to a more severe condition called mastitis (8). Mastitis symptoms are unique and include a burning sensation in the breast, intense redness, high fever, body aches & chills, discharge from the nipple, and a general feeling of lethargy (9). Mastitis requires prompt medical attention and antibiotic course for treatment.
The risk of mastitis is high when the ducts are clogged for long.
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How Long Do Clogged Milk Ducts Last?
Clogged milk ducts usually get better within 24-48 hours. If your milk ducts continue to stay clogged beyond two days, then it could be a sign of mastitis or some other condition. In such a case, go to a doctor right away.
You can also avoid the pain and discomfort caused by the condition by trying to prevent it entirely.
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How To Prevent Clogged Milk Ducts?
You can prevent clogged milk ducts with the appropriate lifestyle choices.
- Wean your baby slowly: If you start weaning your baby abruptly, the chances of clogged milk ducts is higher. Instead wean slowly and gradually, so that the body gets used to the changes and reduces the milk production.
- Express milk when breasts get full: Your breast continues to produce milk for at least 45 days, and in some cases months, after weaning. When your body continues to produce milk after you weaned your baby, expressing the milk out is the best way to prevent clogged milk ducts.
- Avoid tight bras and clothing: Wearing loose and comfortable clothes helps prevent compression, and thus clogging, of the ducts.
- Feed from both breasts: Use both breasts for feeding the child to ensure they are drained completely.
- Massage your breasts whenever they feel sore: Soreness of breasts is quite common when you are breastfeeding. Massage the breasts and use warm compresses to relax the ducts and alleviate clogging.
[ Read: Breastfeeding With Pierced Nipples ]
Breastfeeding may pose challenges, but it is also the best way to nourish a growing infant. Preventing clogged milk ducts ensures that nothing stops you from feeding your baby. All you need to do is observe some simple preventive steps that let you breastfeed the baby without any obstructions.