7 Signs of Healthy Breasts
There’s often a lot of chatter about what can go wrong with breasts. But the reality is that for most of us, for most of our lives, our pair is healthy and normal. Some of us have small breasts, some have large. Some hang low, some sit high. Some are sort of bumpy, and others are smooth. Given all the variants, you may wonder what’s normal. Here’s some of what normal looks like—along with deviations that you might want to have checked out.
They're Both a Little Lumpy
Some women have naturally lumpy breasts. Others have benign water-filled cysts that may shrink or expand depending on the time of the month. If you feel the same lumpiness in the same area of both breasts, it’s probably just normal fibrocystic breast tissue, says William Owens, M.D., director of the Aurora BayCare Medical Center Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Green Bay, WI.
Take Note: “If, however, a woman feels a lump on one side and does not feel a similar lump in the mirror image of the other breast,” says Dr. Owens, she should get it checked out.
The Skin is Clear
The skin on a healthy pair is flat, even, and free of color or texture changes over time.
Take Note: Red or irritated skin under the breasts could signal a skin infection like intertrigo, says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Intertrigo is more common in women with large breasts, or who’ve spent time in sweaty sports bras, he says. And inflammatory breast cancer can make the skin feel bumpy, like an orange peel, according to the National Cancer Institute. It’s rare, but can be aggressive, so get any changes of this type checked right away, says Joy'El Ballard, M.D., an ob-gyn in Annapolis, MD.
They’re Warm—Like the Rest of You!
Your breasts should feel warm (but not hot) to the touch, like the rest of your torso.
Take Note: Have a doctor check out any areas of your breasts that are extra warm or reddened. In breastfeeding women, this could be mastitis, an infection that may require antibiotics. For women who aren’t breastfeeding, this type of inflammation could be a sign of a rare type of breast cancer called inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). Ridges or pitting or extra fullness or pulling back of the skin are other warning signs.
There's No Discharge
Unless you’re pregnant, nursing, or have recently had a baby, your bra cups should stay clean and dry.
Take Note: Nipple discharge when you’re not breastfeeding could signal an imbalance in thyroid hormones or a benign pituitary tumor, says Rebecca Teng, M.D., an ob-gyn at Women's Health Texas in Round Rock, TX. Certain medications can also be to blame, so talk to your doctor. And be sure to get checked out ASAP if the discharge is clear or bloody, comes from just one breast (instead of both), or is associated with a lump—those can be signs of cancer.
They Don't Hurt (Unless You're PMS-ing)
Healthy breasts do about the same thing every day, swinging free or sitting in a bra without making much of a fuss unless your period is near, in which case hormone changes may make them sore.
Take Note: If the tenderness only appears in one breast, or doesn’t seem to correspond with your monthly cycle, talk to your doctor. “If the pain is isolated in one breast and associated with a lump or skin changes, then I would send a patient for breast imaging,” says Dr. Teng.
They Like the Status Quo
Every woman’s breasts are different in size, look, and feel—and that’s totally normal. The key is just to know what's normal for you.
Take Note: One way to get familiar with the status quo is to give yourself a good once-over in the mirror every so often. The Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s “Know Your Girls” campaign suggests asking yourself this simple list of questions—while you do that. Is there a change in the look or feel of your breasts or nipples, for example? Or redness or darkening of the skin?
Your Armpits Feel Smooth
When you're giving your breasts the once over, check your armpits, too. Each pit is home to some 20 lymph nodes, small clumps of tissue that constitute part of the body’s infection-fighting lymph system. When all’s well, you’ll likely never notice them. You can’t really feel them under your skin.
Take Note: If your body’s fighting an infection in or near the breasts, there may be swelling, tenderness, or pain. Dr. Owens says a doctor should examine you “if the swelling and discomfort do not resolve promptly or if the patient has swelling without any associated tenderness or pain.” Both are possible signs of cancer and worth a prompt appointment.
Remember: There are No Stupid Breast Questions
Here’s the bottom line: If you have a question about whether your breasts are normal or not, ask your doctor. Most insurance plans—including high-deductible and government-subsidized policies—offer yearly “well-woman visits” at no charge. If you’re uninsured, consider a free or low-cost checkup from a county health clinic or Planned Parenthood, or a low-cost video visit through Doctors on Demand, Zoomcare, or similar services. Knowledge is power, and reassurance is priceless!