Nipple Issues: When to Worry, When to Wait

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

You probably know the importance of checking your breasts regularly for lumps. But what about your nipples? Everything from swelling to cracks to discharge could be a sign something serious is going on. Then again, maybe not. “Most of the time, when people have nipple symptoms, it’s unlikely that it’s related to cancer,” says Laura Dominici, M.D., a breast surgical oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Still though, it’s natural to worry. Here’s what your nipple symptoms likely mean.

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What to Know About Discharge

Nipple discharge is common and usually nothing to worry about. “For at least two-thirds of women, if they squeeze, they’re going to get discharge,” says Dr. Dominici. But if it happens suddenly, it’s coming from one particular spot, or it’s accompanied by pain or swelling, it’s time to get things checked out. Also, “nipple discharge can be all sorts of colors—brown, yellow, green, or clear,” she says, but if it’s bloody, it’s more likely to indicate a problem, so phone your doctor right away.

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When to Worry About Soreness

To have boobs is to know boob soreness—and same goes for your nipples. The feeling is fairly common, especially when it happens in both breasts at once. It could be a symptom of PMS, a side effect of pregnancy, nursing a baby, or a reaction to clothing or personal care products. But it can also be a sign of an infection, says Bora Lim, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. If soreness is combined with other issues, like bleeding, it’s time to see your doc.

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Is Swelling Ever OK?

Is your bra too tight? Is the fabric itchy? If so, your nipples may swell due to irritation, which—though uncomfortable as all heck—is probably benign, says Dr. Dominici. Then again, “if you also have a lump in the area, discharge, fever, or redness” that’s the time to seek out medical advice to make sure nothing more serious is going on. Look for puffiness in surrounding areas as well: The American Cancer Society lists swelling around the collarbone and armpit as a potential breast cancer symptom.

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Changes That Are Red Flags

The look and feel of your breasts can change over time, and that’s not necessarily something to be concerned about. “This can happen naturally with the aging process, or with changes in pigment in the skin,” says Dr. Dominici. It could also be due to a change in blood supply or a previous breast cancer treatment. One change that's more worrisome: A newly inverted nipple, combined with other symptoms, could be a potential breast cancer warning sign.

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Is a Burning Sensation Serious?

It may be uncomfortable, but as a rule, you can relax on this one. There could be many reasons behind a burning sensation, including an allergic reaction, new hormonal medication, perimenopause, or previous radiation for breast cancer. “Most of the time, a burning sensation is not something that suggests cancer,” says Dr. Dominici. “The major things we would be looking for are other symptoms in addition to that,” such as a lump, obvious changes in the breast, redness, or a fever.

Paget Disease of the Nipple
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When to Get Help for a Rash

Scaly skin and rashes are often signs of an allergic reaction, fungal infection, or chemical irritation. On the other hand, “a rash may need attention if someone has fever, the breast is also red, or they’re having a lot of pain,” Dr. Dominici says. Pay attention to where the scaliness occurs. If it’s on the areola (pigmented area around the nipple) but not the nipple itself, it’s very unlikely to be cancer. But “if the nipple itself starts having scabbing, scaliness, or a rash, that can be a sign of Paget disease, a form of cancer,” she adds.

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Cracking or Bleeding? See a Doc

“If someone is having bloody discharge, it should definitely be checked out,” Dr. Dominici urges. The American Cancer Society classifies bloody discharge as a potential cancer warning, though it could also signal an infection of some kind. Bloody discharge is a known sign of Paget disease, along with flaky, thickened nipple skin, a flattened nipple, or redness. Better to be safe in this case and get it checked out by a doctor ASAP.

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How to Practice Healthy Nipple Care

While most of these nipple issues may be no big deal, they can be signs of a potential problem if they persist, says Dr. Lim. When in doubt, see your doc—we’re talking about your breasts, after all. “Especially if these changes rapidly get worse over matter of days or weeks, or antibiotics and other medical treatment given does not seem to improve, then you may want to ask for breast cancer evaluation,” she says. That may include a mammogram as well as other screenings.

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Be Proactive About Breast Cancer

If you’re 40 or older, the American Cancer Society recommends getting mammograms every year (or every two years if you’re over 55). You may choose to start even earlier if breast cancer runs in your family. “Whenever someone is having a new breast symptom, particularly if it seems to be persisting, it’s never a bad idea to call your primary care doctor,” says Dr. Dominici. Catching breast cancer early greatly improves your odds of beating it. Bottom line: You know your body best. If something feels off, trust your intuition.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.