Why Does My Nipple Hurt When I Touch It
Do you ever notice that your nipple hurts? Is it tender when you touch it or suck on it? Even worse, is it painful to wear a tight shirt or bra? You might be suffering from irritation caused by something going wrong with your milk ducts.
Breasts contain thousands of small milk-producing glands called lobules. Each one has an opening at the tip called a lactiferous sinus (a.k.a., canal) where milk collects. The fluid drains into larger ducts that run toward the nipples like spaghetti under the skin. At each end of these ducts are tiny holes that connect the ducts directly to the nipples themselves. These openings are called ostia. Lactiferous sinuses and ostia are lined with specialized cells known as myoepithelial cells. They keep out bacteria and debris while allowing watery milk to pass through.
When you eat a meal rich in protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, your body releases hormones that tell your breasts to produce more milk. This results in increased blood flow to the breasts. As the blood courses through the vessels surrounding the lactiferous sinuses, it stimulates them to contract. The muscles within the walls of the sinuses squeeze together, forcing milk toward the ostia and out through the lactiferous sinus ducts. Meanwhile, nerves provide a signal telling the myoepithelial cells lining the ostia how much pressure to apply. In this way, the myoepithelial cells act like cork screws, squeezing tightly to prevent any unwanted substances from entering the milk stream.
The most important thing about myoepithelial cells is their role in protecting the integrity of the milk ducts. If bacteria or viruses manage to get inside the ducts, they can multiply and cause infection. To prevent this, the myoepithelial cells release chemical signals to attract white blood cells. The white blood cells then go after the invaders and destroy them. Without the white blood cells, bacterial growth could lead to mastitis, a condition that causes inflammation of the mammary glands.
In addition to keeping bacteria and viruses away, the myoepithelial cells also help keep germs off your nipples. Your skin doesn’t feel things until they’re close enough for nerve endings to detect them, but bacteria and viruses are too big to do so. Once infected, however, bacteria may enter the bloodstream and travel throughout your body. Some varieties even attack the brain. Germs such as strep throat, pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, syphilis, and meningococcal disease can spread via the mouth. Viral illnesses often begin with symptoms similar to those of a cold — fever, headache, nausea, and diarrhea. A compromised immune system makes people more vulnerable to viral diseases than bacterial ones.
If you’ve been touching your nipples or wearing tight clothing recently, you might have irritated your nipples without realizing it. We’ll take a look at some possible causes next.
Irritated Nipples FAQ
What Causes Sore Nipples?
How Do Irritants Affect Nipples?
Treating Irritated Nipples
What Causes Sore Nipples?
You probably know that your hands come in contact with many irritants every day. Things like soap, shampoo, lotion, makeup, deodorant, nail polish, perfume, cigarette smoke, and chemicals in fabrics and plastics can all irritate your skin. But what happens when these irritants come into direct contact with your nipples? Unfortunately, there’s not much research on this topic. However, we do know that some of these items can trigger irritation and swelling of the nipples.
Some common household products that can irritate nipples include hair spray, hairspray, sunscreen, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and perfumes. Other sources of irritation include jewelry and accessories such as earrings, rings, necklaces, bracelets, watches, and tights. All these objects can rub against your nipples, causing redness, burning, itching, and discomfort.
Another potential source of nipple irritation is tight clothing. Tight bras and shirts can cause chafing. And underwear and pantyhose can cut off circulation to your nipples. Wearing overly hot clothing can also contribute to irritation.
Itching and dryness are two other signs of nipple irritation. Dry conditions can leave your nipples feeling raw and uncomfortable. They become especially prone to cracking, peeling, and scaling when exposed to elements like sun, wind, and humidity.
Next, let’s take a closer look at how irritants affect nipples.
How Do Irritants Affect Nipples?
Your nipples aren’t just pretty decorations on top of your chest; they perform an essential function. They secrete a thin liquid called colostrum that helps feed newborn infants who still depend on breastmilk. During nursing, the mother produces approximately 800 milliliters (about 26 ounces) of colostrum daily. After giving birth, her baby takes in the thick fluid through his or her nostrils. Colostrum contains antibodies that fight off dangerous bacteria and viruses in the infant’s digestive tract.
As soon as you notice that your nipples become inflamed, swollen, cracked, scaly, or bleeding, take action immediately. Keep reading to learn what treatment options exist.
There isn’t much data available regarding which ingredients in certain soaps, shampoos, and cosmetics cause irritation. Most likely, though, anything that gets between your fingers and down deep into your pores will cause problems. Try changing brands or types of soaps and personal care products. Also avoid using fragrances, dyes, and oils in general. Choose milder cleansers instead. Ask your dermatologist or pharmacist about less irritating alternatives.
Treatments for Irritated Nipples
Once you figure out what’s making your nipples swell, itch, burn, bleed, crack, peel, or ooze, you should try to treat the problem yourself before seeking medical attention. First, stop using whatever product seems to be causing the harm. Then, use over-the-counter medications designed specifically for nipple complaints.
Products containing benzocaine, lidocaine, prilcoquine hydrochloride, menthol, camphor, eucalyptol, methyl salicylate, parachlorometaxyphenol, capsicum, neem oil, tea tree oil, and wintergreen oil work well. Apply these topical agents liberally to the affected area several times per day. If you don’t see improvement in three days, consult your doctor.
While waiting for a diagnosis, you should try applying warm compresses to the nipples. Don’t put heat above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (or 43 degrees Celsius), or you could scar the tissue permanently. Instead, stick to gentle compressions that only elevate the nipples slightly. Use gauze pads soaked in lukewarm water. Avoid rubbing the nipples or poking them with needles.
After washing your hands thoroughly, soak your nipples in lukewarm water for 15 minutes. Change the water every five minutes. If the inflammation persists, seek medical attention. Doctors can prescribe oral antihistamines or cortisone creams to relieve the discomfort associated with hives.
Now that you understand why your nipples hurt, read on to find out how to protect yourself from future irritation.
Treatment of nipple irritation requires patience and persistence. Many treatments simply won’t work right away because the underlying cause hasn’t yet been identified. Treatment methods sometimes vary depending on the severity of the issue. For instance, severe cases require antibiotics. Mild cases usually respond well to over-the-counter remedies.
Treating Irritated Nipples
To keep your nipples healthy, wash your hands carefully before eating, kissing, or handling food. Wear loose fitting, breathable garments made of cotton or wool. That said, you shouldn’t always give up silk lingerie, expensive suits, or cashmere sweaters. Anything that covers your skin completely should be avoided, as well. Loose-fitting tops, long sleeves, and pants are best. Long skirts and dresses may expose your nipples to unnecessary friction.
Avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight. Sunlight can damage your skin and increase sensitivity. If you must go outside, wear protective clothing and hats. Take frequent breaks from the sun. Drink plenty of fluids so your urine dilutes the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.
Keep your nails short and trim them regularly. Cuticles can irritate your nipples if they poke into the sensitive skin around them. Trim fingernails and toenails properly. Don’t file rough edges or split nails. Be careful to avoid damaging cuticles while cutting nails.
Don’t use harsh soaps on your face, hands, arms, legs, or feet. Soap dries the surface layer of skin, leaving your deeper layers unprotected. Exfoliating scrubs can also irritate your skin. If you suffer from psoriasis, eczema, or another type of skin disorder, ask your doctor whether exfoliating products would benefit you.
Get regular exercise. Exercise increases circulation, which means that your nipples receive more oxygen.
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