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In Depth: Chest

Regardless of their exterior physical characteristics, the makeup of the female breast is fundamentally the same.

A woman’s chest — like the rest of her body — is covered with skin that has two layers.

  • The epidermis is the outermost layer that provides a protective, waterproof seal over the body.
  • The dermis is the under layer that contains sweat glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, and more

Changes in the skin’s surface can be signs of larger problems, such as the development of breast cancer, breast infection, or varying skin problems. Some common outward signs of problems with a woman’s breast can include:

  • Redness or discoloration
  • Hardening and flaking of the skin
  • Acne, rash, or blisters
  • Inverted nipple

Although some problems can arise on the surface, there are some signs that hide just below it. For example, women should regularly check for lumps in their breasts. A might mean breast cancer, but there are other causes for benign (noncancerous) breast lumps. These include:

  • Breast infection
  • Fibrocystic breast disease
  • Fibroadenoma (noncancerous tumor)
  • Fat necrosis (damaged tissue)

Breast pain — clinically called mastalgia — is a common symptom. There are several causes that can contribute to this pain, including:

  • Hormone fluctuation caused by menstruation or the menstrual cycle
  • Birth control pills; breast pain is a side effect of some pills
  • A bra that doesn't fit
  • Stress

Breast lump, pain, and tenderness are the symptoms most often associated with breast cancer. Other symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • Nipple discharge
  • Inverted nipple
  • Visible veins on the breast
  • Enlargement of one breast
  • Dimpling of the skin
  • A waxy, “orange peel” texture to the skin
  • Vaginal pain
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit area

The female breast is viewed differently by different cultures. Some evolutionary biologists believe that well-endowed women were preferred as mates so they could provide nourishment for children. Large breasts are often used as signs of sexual maturity and health in advertising, putting what some critic say as an unrealistic expectation on women’s appearances. Breast enlargement is one of the most common plastic surgeries.

However, that same view has not always been prevalent in society. Even the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, is often portrayed naked with small breasts, emphasizing youth and fertility.

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