What is mastitis? Hospital admissions on the rise for painful breastfeeding condition

More women are needing hospital treatment for mastitis [Photo: Getty]

The number of women needing hospital treatment for mastitis, a painful inflammatory condition caused by breastfeeding, has increased steadily in recent years.

A new study reveals a growing number of hospital admissions for females suffering with lactational mastitis was recorded between 2006 and 2015.

HSE research found that the hospital admission rate for the condition rose from 22.7 women per 10,000 live births in 2006 to 30.9 per 10,000 by 2015.

The report also suggested that both women and doctors did not know enough about the condition.

What is mastitis?

“Mastitis is the inflammation of the breast tissue in breastfeeding women,” says Clare Byam-Cook, The Baby Show‘s Breastfeeding expert and author of ‘What to Expect When You’re Breastfeeding…And What if You Can’t?’

“If caught very early then mothers can sort the problem out by emptying their breasts effectively via either breastfeeding or using a breast pump. If it persists and becomes hard, red and shows signs of infection, then you should see your GP who will prescribe you with Antibiotics.”

According to Byam-Cook mastitis can happen to anyone, out of bad luck or if your baby is latching on incorrectly to your nipple. “Your breast becomes blocked up, nipples become sore and infection travels up and can create a hard-lumpy area. If you continue to breastfeed or breast pump and the symptoms disappear then you don’t need to do anything, but if symptoms continue then you should go see your GP.”

READ MORE: What is D-MER? Breastfeeding condition left a mum in tears every time she fed her baby

Mastitis is a painful inflammatory condition caused by breastfeeding [Photo: Getty]

What are the symptoms of mastitis?

Liz Halliday, deputy head of midwifery at Private Midwives says women will most often experience a red lumpy area, usually on one breast, which is painful and hot to touch.

“Women may also experience flu-like symptoms such as chills, aches, feeling generally unwell and will usually develop a temperature over 38°C,” she adds. 

According to Halliday mastitis is most likely to occur within 2 to 3 weeks of birth, but can occur at any time.

“It usually develops suddenly and quickly. Quick action at the first signs may stop it developing but if this does not work antibiotics should be considered,” she adds. 

READ MORE: Half of new mums feel breastfeeding guilt

What should women do if they think they have mastitis?

“If you think you have mastitis it is a good idea to call your midwife or a lactation consultant,” Halliday says. “If it has been more than 24 hours or you are very unwell you should contact your doctor immediately for antibiotics.”

She suggests resting, increasing your fluid intake and eating well.

Halliday says it is imperative that women suffering from mastitis do not stop breastfeeding as this could lead to a severe case of mastitis and even a breast abscess forming.

“Emptying the breast is important,” she adds. “Feed baby regularly, and if baby is refusing the breast or you are finding it too painful, express instead. Aim to empty the breast every two hours, and don’t forget about the other breast!”

According to Halliday it is important to contact your health care provider if you have been in hospital recently, your baby is less than 2 weeks old, you have broken skin on the breasts or nipples and clear signs of infection, there is pus or blood in your milk, you are deteriorating quickly, you are feeling very sleepy, your temperature has gone up suddenly, you have become suddenly very unwell or friends and family are concerned that you are not yourself.

READ MORE: Why is there still no support for breastfeeding mums in the workplace?

Liz Halliday has put together some suggestions of techniques that may help ease the pain of mastitis for women to try if symptoms are mild and a woman has been experiencing them for less than 24 hours.

Nursing or expressing:

  • Apply warm compresses to the breast, or a warm shower head directed at the affected area.
  • Massage the breast. This will encourage good flow and help to unblock the milk ducts.
  • Feed from the affected side first.
  • Try dangle feeding. From an all fours position dangle the breast into your baby’s mouth and they lie underneath you. You will feel like a cow I’m afraid but this is an effective way of emptying the breast.
  • Make sure you have a good latch.
  • Try to use breast compressions to increase the flow and empty the breast effectively.
  • After feeding, express to ensure the breast is truly empty.
  • Wear a supportive but not a restrictive bra.
  • Use cold compresses to reduce inflammation.
  • Take paracetamol and nurofen as directed by the manufacturer.

There are some natural remedies that you could also consider to support the above treatments.
including taking soya lecithin or bromalein tablets to thin the milk, prebiotics, which can help balance the flora in your body and a potato compress.

“Take a raw potato and grate it. Apply to the affected breast and cover with clingfilm. Secure with tape, a non restrictive bra, or simply lie down. Reapply after each feed,” Halliday explains.

“These are not evidence based remedies, but anecdotally women have found then very helpful,” she adds.