A diagnosis of mastitis is based on the patient’s symptoms and a breast examination. A sample of the patient’s breast milk may also be taken and sent for analysis.
Mastitis can often mimic breast cancer and careful examination of any symptoms is therefore required to ensure that no cancer is present in the breast. If a physician is unsure whether a lump or hardness in the breast tissue is caused by mastitis, an ultrasound scan may be performed to ensure the mass is actually a tumor.
Some common symptoms of mastitis include:
- Redness and swelling of the breast
- The breast may feel hot and painful
- A lump or hardness in the breast
- A burning pain in the breast. The pain may be continuous or only occur during breastfeeding
- Discharge from the affected nipple
- Flu-like symptoms such as fever, tiredness, body ache and chills
Mastitis often occurs as a result of milk accumulating in the milk ducts and causing a blockage. This can occur if the baby’s mouth is not correctly attaching to the breast or if feeding is infrequent.
Sometimes, the accumulated milk can become infected with bacteria and lead to infective mastitis. A sample of the breast milk may then need to be cultured to determine which bacteria is causing infection. The correct antibiotic that is specific to the bacteria can then be prescribed to treat the infection.
If this infection is not promptly diagnosed and treated, the mother is at risk of developing a breast abscess which is the most serious complication of mastitis a woman can develop. The abscess may be painful and also cause the the breast to become red, hot and swollen. In addition, a fever may develop. This painful collection of pus is usually treated using a surgical drainage technique.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc