Breasts are made up of four main tissue structures: fat tissue, milk ducts, glands, and connective tissue. The fat, or adipose, tissue is subject to fluctuations in fluid volume. This can cause your breasts to swell, resulting in soreness or tenderness. Other changes in your breast tissue can also result in breast swelling.
What are common symptoms of breast swelling?
Breast swelling can cause noticeable changes. For example, your breasts might become noticeably larger. Veins in your breasts might become more visible as swelling brings them closer to your skin.
Other symptoms may include:
- feeling of heaviness in your breast
- tenderness or discomfort around your breast and potentially up into your armpit
- changes to the texture of your breasts or the skin on and around your breasts
In some cases, your breasts will feel warmer or hot to the touch. Hardened lumps in your breast tissue may also accompany breast swelling. While this isn’t always a cause for concern, it can be a sign of breast cancer.
What causes breast swelling?
A variety of things can cause breast swelling. The causes range from harmless to serious.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is one common cause of breast swelling. Before the start of each period, your estrogen production increases. Along with other changes in your body, this hormonal shift can cause your breast ducts and milk glands to become enlarged. It may also result in water retention, which can increase breast swelling. PMS-related symptoms tend to improve when you start your period.
Breast swelling can also be a symptom of breast cancer. There are different types of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer can cause your breasts to swell as a result of blocked lymph vessels. Your breast tissue may also appear pitted, like an orange peel. Tumors in your breasts can manifest as hard and painful lumps.
Other potential causes of breast swelling include:
- foods and drinks, such as those with high amounts of caffeine or salt
- certain medications, such as birth control pills, that contain estrogen
- changes that occur when you’re pregnant
- postpartum-related changes that occur after you’ve given birth
- mastitis, an infection of your milk ducts that can happen with breast-feeding
- fibrocystic breast disease, a condition where you develop noncancerous lumps in your breast
When should you seek medical attention?
PMS-related breast swelling is common, but it shouldn’t become so uncomfortable that it disrupts your daily life. If you experience excessively painful breast swelling during your menstrual cycle, make an appointment with your doctor.
You should also talk to your doctor if you experience breast swelling that’s accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- cracking of your nipple
- changes in the color of your nipple or the skin on your breast
- dimpling or puckering of the skin on your breast
- excess breast swelling that prevents breast milk from coming out after you give birth
- a hardened lump in your breast tissue that doesn’t change during your menstrual cycle
- a sore on your breast that doesn’t heal
- unexpected discharge from your nipple
If you experience other symptoms that don’t get better with time, talk to your doctor. When in doubt, ask them about your symptoms.
How are the causes of breast swelling diagnosed?
To diagnose the cause of breast swelling, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. For example, they may ask when your symptoms began and whether they get better or worse at certain times. They will examine your breast tissue and feel for lumps. They may also recommend imaging tests such as a mammogram or breast ultrasound to view the internal structures of your breast.
How is breast swelling treated?
Your doctor’s recommended treatment plan will depend on the cause of your breast swelling.
If the swelling is caused by an infection, they may prescribe antibiotics. You can also learn how to keep your breast tissue clean and dry to prevent further infection.
If the swelling is caused by hormonal changes related to your menstrual cycle, your doctor may prescribe birth control pills. The pills can relieve breast swelling and other symptoms of PMS in some women. If you’re already using hormonal contraceptives, they may encourage you to switch to another type.
If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor’s recommended treatment plan will depend on the type, location, and stage of your cancer. They may prescribe chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination.
To relieve discomfort associated with breast swelling, it may help to:
- wear a supportive bra or make sure your bra fits properly
- apply a cloth-covered heat pack or ice pack to your breasts for up to 10 minutes at a time
- use over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen
Breast cancer screening for early detection
Since breast swelling is occasionally a sign of breast cancer, regular mammograms are recommended for women 45 years old and above. The American Cancer Society recommends the following screening guidelines for women:
- Ages 40-44: Start annual mammogram screenings if they choose to do so.
- Ages 45-54: Get annual mammograms.
- Ages 55 and older: Mammograms every two years, or annually if the woman prefers.
All women should be familiar with how their breasts feel normally, and talk to their doctor if any changes occur.
Preventing breast swelling
In some cases, eating a healthy diet reduces the pain and tenderness associated with breast swelling. Try to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and avoid processed foods and those rich in saturated fats. Consider cutting back your caffeine intake by limiting your consumption of sodas, coffee, and tea. Reducing your salt consumption and increasing your water intake can also help relieve bloating.