What causes breast swelling? 7 possible conditions
Breasts are made up of four main tissue structures: fat tissue, glands, milk ducts, and connective tissue. The fat (or adipose) tissue in particular is subject to fluctuations in fluid volume, which can cause breast swelling. This occurrence can cause sore or tender breasts. Causes can range from hormone fluctuations to the presence of a cancerous tumor.
Breast swelling can cause physically obvious changes, such as noticeably larger breasts. Veins in the breasts may be more visible because swelling brings the blue-green veins closer to the skin. Additional breast swelling symptoms include:
- breast tenderness or discomfort
- changes to the breast skin’s texture, such as a rougher or denser feeling
- heavy-feeling breasts
In some cases of breast swelling, the breasts may feel warmer or hot to the touch. Hardened lumps in the breast tissue may also accompany breast swelling. While this is not always cause for concern, it could indicate a possible breast cancer lesion.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a common cause of breast swelling. Prior to starting her period, a woman’s estrogen production increases. This causes changes to her body, including enlarged breast ducts and milk glands. Women also tend to retain more water during this time, which can cause increased swelling. PMS-related symptoms tend to improve when a woman starts her period.
In rare instances, breast swelling can be a symptom associated with breast cancer. There are different types of breast cancer. For example, inflammatory breast cancer causes breast swelling and redness in the breasts due to blocked lymph vessels. Breast tissue may also appear pitted, like an orange peel.
For other women, breast swelling can be a symptom of a cancerous breast tumor. These can cause hard, sometimes painful, lumps to develop in the breasts. Note, however, that many women have lumps present in their breasts that are not cancerous.
Additional breast swelling causes include:
- some foods and drinks, such as those with high amounts of caffeine or salt
- mastitis, an infection of the milk duct that can accompany breastfeeding
- postpartum-related breast changes when a mother’s milk comes in
- pregnancy-related changes
- taking estrogen-containing medications, such as birth control pills
While PMS-related breast swelling is a customary discomfort that accompanies the menstrual cycle, breast swelling should not become so uncomfortable so as to disrupt daily life. Talk to your doctor if your breast swelling is excessively painful prior to starting your period.
Other symptoms that warrant a trip to your physician include:
- color changes to the breast, such as skin that appears pink, bruised, or reddish-purple
- cracking in the nipple
- excess breast swelling that keeps breast milk from coming out after giving birth
- a non-healing sore on the breast
- painless, hardened lump in breast tissue that does not change over the menstrual cycle
- skin dimpling or puckering
- unexpected nipple discharge
- symptoms that do not improved with time
This information is a summary. Always seek medical attention if you are concerned you may be experiencing a medical emergency.
When you experience breast swelling, your physician will typically try to diagnose its cause. He or she may ask about when symptoms began and what makes them worse or better. Your doctor will examine your breast tissue and feel for lumps. He or she may recommend imaging studies to better view the tissue. This can include a mammogram or breast ultrasound to better view any lumps or cysts.
Breast swelling due to breast infections may be treated with antibiotics. You will be instructed to keep the breast tissue clean and dry to prevent further infection.
A doctor may treat intense, hormone-related breast swelling and pain by prescribing birth control pills, which can relieve symptoms in some women. Another option is Depo-Provera, which eliminates menstrual periods for up to three months. A doctor can also prescribe low-dose male hormone pills to counteract the effects of excess estrogen.
Breast cancer is treated according to its type, its location, and how advanced the cancer is.
Eating a healthy diet can help to reduce the pain and tenderness associated with breast swelling. This includes eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoiding high-fat foods, such as convenience foods. Cutting back on your caffeine intake by reducing caffeine-containing sodas, coffee, and tea can also help. Instead, try increasing your water intake, which can reduce bloating.
Other prevention steps include:
- applying either a cloth-covered heat pack or ice pack to your breasts for up to 10 minutes at a time
- cutting back on your salt intake
- a supportive bra or increasing bra size by one size prior to starting your period
- over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen
- taking stress-relieving walks or practicing yoga
- Breast Engorgement in the First Week Postpartum. (n.d.). Sutter Health. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://www.pamf.org/children/newborns/feeding/engorgement.html
- Breast Pain. (n.d.). Sutter Health. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://www.cpmc.org/services/women/breast/breast_about.html
- Breast - Premenstrual Tenderness and Swelling. (2012, May 31). MedlinePlus. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003153.htm
- Breast Problems in Women. (n.d.). American Academy of Family Physicians. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/breast-problems-women.html
- Breast Cancer Symptoms: What You Need to Know. (2013, September 23). American Cancer Society. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/breast-cancer-symptoms-what-you-need-to-know
- Inflammatory Breast Cancer. (2012, April 18). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/IBC
- Pregnancy Symptoms - Early Signs of Pregnancy. (n.d.). American Pregnancy Association. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://americanpregnancy.org/gettingpregnant/earlypregnancysymptoms.html
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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