9 things that could be causing your sore nipples

·5-min read
Photo credit: Sakan Piriyapongsak / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sakan Piriyapongsak / EyeEm - Getty Images

Sore nipples affect almost all of us at some point – and there's a tendency is to presume the cause is hormonal, e.g. thinking than tender nipples could be down to periods, or even due to pregnancy. While these certainly can be a reason for sensitive nipples, there’s plenty more going on inside your body that can make you feel uncomfortable too (sorry!).

Luckily, the reason why your nipples hurt or could feel sore is likely nothing to worry. Whilst it may be something you want to get checked out by a doctor, it might also be something as straightforward as the type of washing powder you're using or friction from your clothes.

Here are nine possibly reasons why your nipples could be sore, and what you can do about it:

1. Hormones

The most common reason for your sore nipples is probably hormonal. Dr Ram Prasad, Consultant Breast Surgeon at Pall Mall Medical explains that more often than not, our ovulation can make your nipples hurt, "Tender nipples are unfortunately a common occurrence for people with breasts," he said. "Typically, this is linked to changes in your menstrual cycle or a sign of pregnancy."

He added that "higher oestrogen levels cause the breast ducts to enlarge during your period", so take a look at where you’re at in your monthly cycle before stressing.

2. Pregnancy

This one kind of makes sense. According to the NHS, breast and nipple pain can be an early sign of pregnancy. As Dr. Hana Abu-Hassan from the Chelsea Pharmacy Medical Clinic explains, "Blood flow increases to the breasts during pregnancy, making them more sensitive. This also gets them ready for breastfeeding. There’s also an increase in the hormones progesterone and prolactin."

If you think this is the case and you might be pregnant, take a pregnancy test at home or visit your GP to get a blood test.

Photo credit: CouCou Suzette
Photo credit: CouCou Suzette

3. Breastfeeding

If you’re breastfeeding, you almost certainly know why your nipples are dry, cracked and sore to touch. Good news is, you can still help minimise the pain.

“Soreness is very common in people who choose to breastfeed, but simple steps, such as making sure your baby has latched properly and regularly applying ointments like Lansinoh to the nipples, are good preventative measures,” Dr Prasad said.

4. Infection

Sore, sensitive nipples tend to go away after a few days if you’re not pregnant. However, if they don’t, your nipples may be infected.

“This will most commonly be diagnosed as a benign condition called ‘periductal mastitis’, when the nipple becomes inflamed, tender and hot to touch,” Dr Prasad explained. “Female smokers will be more susceptible to this as smoke can cause damage to the nipple ducts.

“If your GP believes this to be the case, they will refer you to a specialist who will conduct a mammogram or ultrasound scan.”

Yeast infections could also be causing irritation, redness or sometimes flakiness. If this is painful and causing stinging, it’s worth getting that checked out.

5. Friction

That new lacy bra might be pretty, but it could affecting your sensitive nipples.

Irritants, like clothes, or even lifestyle factors such as dry weather could all have a huge effect on your skin. Dr. Hana advises washing your bras every three wears, as lingerie will collect dead skin cells and bacteria while worn.

If you’re a runner, invest in a good sports bra to avoid nipple chafing (these should be washed more frequently, as the moisture and sweat is the perfect breeding ground for bugs to grow), and stick to everyday cotton bras (in the right size) for a few days while you wait to see if the soreness eases.

Photo credit: Tetra Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tetra Images - Getty Images

6. Washing powder

Similarly, your washing powder could be rubbing you up the wrong way. If you’ve recently switched, consider going back to your previous brand – or even change to a non-bio detergent. Your nipples will thank you for it.

7. Skin conditions

Those with skin conditions are more likely to suffer with sore nipples, as Dr Prasad said: “This can cause inflammation to the areola area.”

If you’re prone to eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis or general allergies, there’s every chance it’s behind your nipple irritation.

Photo credit: CouCou Suzette - Getty Images
Photo credit: CouCou Suzette - Getty Images

8. Sex

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, but spare a thought for your sensitive nipples – too much squeezing or biting during sex is bound to leave them sore. If this is the case, they’ll heal on their own... but maybe take it easy next time.

9. Breast cancer

This is very rare, but not to be entirely dismissed if you’re worried about nipple pain. Dr Prasad explained:

“In rare circumstances, eczema-like rashes around the nipple can be a precancerous sign of ‘Paget’s disease’ which is associated to breast cancer.

“A biopsy or a mammogram will rule out any suspicions.”

What can you do when your nipples start hurting?

You can purchase over-the-counter remedies, such as hydrocortisone, which can suppress inflammation and itchiness. Emollients and ointments will work to soothe the skin and prevent dryness, as well as lanolin creams or ointments.

In some cases, take a look at your lifestyle and consider how it could be affecting your body. “In the long term, making gradual changes like cutting down on any smoking habits will reduce further damage to the nipple duct,” Dr Prasad explained.

As with many complaints, you should see a doctor if symptoms don’t improve within two weeks, or if they continue to recur.

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