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Everything You Should Know About Breast Cellulitis

Overview

Breast cellulitis is a type of serious bacterial infection that affects the skin of the breast.

This condition may occur from broken skin, but it’s most often the result of complications from surgery or cancer treatments. While most women will go through breast surgery without developing an infection, about 1 in 20 women are affected.

If not diagnosed and promptly treated, breast cellulitis can lead to life-threatening complications.

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Symptoms

Symptoms

The symptoms of breast cellulitis tend to occur shortly after the skin is broken in any fashion. This includes breast cancer surgery and other related incisions. If you have a weakened immune system from cancer treatments, then a simple cut can lead to cellulitis.

Symptoms of breast cellulitis may include:

  • redness and swelling
  • tenderness
  • fever
  • chills
  • pain when touched
  • a wound that is oozing clear or yellow fluids
  • rash
  • red streaks developing from the rash

See your doctor right away if you develop any symptoms that may indicate breast cellulitis.

Read more: What is a breast infection? »

Causes

Causes

Cellulitis is a type of skin infection that can occur anywhere in the body. It’s a bacterial infection that affects skin tissues just underneath the skin’s surface. Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus are the two most common types of bacteria that cause cellulitis. They can cause the infection by getting into exposed cuts. A decreased immune system can also increase your risk for cellulitis.

Breast cellulitis isn’t normally caused by infected cuts like other forms of the infection. Instead, this type of infection mostly manifests itself from cancer treatments or surgeries. Lymph node removal can weaken your immune system and increase your risk for cellulitis in the upper body. This includes your breasts. This infection can also occur after breast augmentation or reduction surgeries.

Breast cellulitis vs. inflammatory breast cancer

Breast cellulitis can sometimes be caused by inflammatory breast cancer. However, these are two separate conditions. Cellulitis of the breasts is sometimes mistaken for inflammatory breast cancer, and vice versa.

Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare form of breast cancer. Symptoms include:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain

Cellulitis can cause fever or chills, which aren’t symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer.

Any significant changes in your breasts should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible, however, so that they can determine the cause.

Learn more: Inflammatory breast cancer vs. breast infection »

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See a doctor

When to see your doctor

Cellulitis tends to develop and spread rapidly. See your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect breast cellulitis or notice sudden changes to your breasts. This can help prevent the infection from getting worse and causing further complications.

Your doctor will first perform a physical exam. Sometimes a blood test can also help your doctor diagnose breast cellulitis.

If for some reason you can’t see a doctor right away, seek help from an urgent care center or the emergency room.

Treatment

Treatment

Breast cellulitis, as with other forms of cellulitis, is treated with antibiotics. These are typically taken for 7–10 days to make sure that the infection doesn’t come back. Take the entire prescription as directed. Your doctor will likely want to see you after a couple of weeks to make sure the infection has fully cleared up.

Ask your doctor if you can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), to help ease discomfort while the antibiotics run their course.

If you don’t respond to prescription antibiotics, your doctor may recommend intravenous antibiotics given at the hospital.

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Complications

Complications

Left untreated, breast cellulitis can lead to serious complications. A blood infection can lead to poisoning (septicemia), which is potentially fatal.

Breast cellulitis may also lead to lymphedema. Lymphedema is a condition where your lymph nodes are unable to properly drain. You may especially be at risk if you’ve had one or more lymph nodes removed.

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Outlook

Outlook

Once you start taking antibiotics, you should notice an improvement in your symptoms within a couple of days. If you don’t see any improvement, call your doctor. They may want to see you again and possibly prescribe a different course of treatment.

If your immune system is compromised from cancer treatments, there’s a chance that cellulitis can recur. Talk to your doctor about ways you can boost your immunity. They may give you an emergency supply of antibiotics to have on hand in case you develop breast cellulitis again.

When caught and treated early, breast cellulitis has a positive outlook. Left untreated, blood poisoning and death are possible.

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Prevention

Prevention

Cellulitis that occurs from a cut or a bug bite can typically be prevented with cleansing and bandaging of the affected area. If you get a cut or a bite on your breast, you may be able to use OTC ointments and wraps to make sure that it doesn’t turn into cellulitis.

Breast cellulitis from surgery and cancer-related treatments can also be prevented by making a few minor adjustments. Ask your doctor about:

  • washing the area before any incisions are made
  • having any procedures done in an outpatient facility because the risk of infection after a hospital stay is statistically higher by comparison
  • taking antibiotics before or after any procedures as a precaution, especially if you’re more prone to infections

If you suspect breast cellulitis, call your doctor right away.

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