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
- 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
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
- 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
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
- Ages 45-54: Get annual mammograms.
- Ages 55 and older: Mammograms every two years, or annually if the
All women should be
familiar with how their breasts feel normally, and talk to their doctor if any
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.