What Does It Mean When Your Nipples Hurt?

Having painful nipples is a common complaint that many women have. The term nipple pain describes any type of painful discomfort in the nipples with many different causes. The most likely reason is minor surface friction from any activity from breastfeeding to physical exercise (e.g. jogging or dancing). But what does it mean? And what can you do to ease the pain?

What Does It Mean When Your Nipples Hurt?

If you're experiencing breast or nipple pain, you'll need to identify the cause so you can find the solution. Listed below are 12 common causes of nipple pain.

1. Hormonal Changes

Throughout life, women's bodies undergo great changes in reproductive hormone levels.

  • Firstly, hormonal changes at puberty cause the breasts to grow and nipples can become tender and painful.
  • At ovulation, in the middle of the menstrual cycle, increased estrogen and progesterone levels can make the nipples sore.
  • Conversely, just before the period begins, excess estrogen and decreased progesterone may also cause nipple pain.
  • At the menopause, hormone levels vary wildly, resulting in many physical and mental issues, including sore nipples.

2. Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone levels rise and breast size increases, which can lead to sensitive and painful breasts and nipples. You may also get nipple pain when breastfeeding your baby. To relieve pain while breastfeeding, try getting your baby to feed with a wider mouth, then when finished, remove him or her from your nipple by gently moving the chin downwards to stop the sucking.

3. Dry Skin

What does it mean when your nipples hurt? It means your skin is dry. Loss of moisture in the nipple region can cause the skin on the nipples to become dry and chapped. This may be exacerbated by the continual wetting and then drying effect of breastfeeding, so you may need to modify your feeding technique and not over-dry your nipples after a feed. You can also relieve dryness by regularly applying moisturizer.

4. Friction & Chaffing

Nipple fissure, or "jogger's nipple", is pain in the nipples due to friction during sports such as running. Female surfers who don't wear nipple guards may also be susceptible. Fabric can rub against the skin, especially when a woman wears a badly fitted bra or no bra at all. This can lead to dryness, irritation, soreness and bleeding.

To reduce friction on your nipples, choose a well-fitted sports bra, made from synthetic material, not cotton. You can also use waterproof plasters, surgical tape or specific protective products such as rash guards during exercise. If you have already damaged the skin on the nipples, prevent further damage by using nipple shields or barrier cream.

5. A Chest Injury

Any type of chest trauma can hurt your nipples, making them very sensitive and painful. For instance, a car seat belt can cut into your nipples during an accident or sudden breaking. However, this type of nipple pain should heal with time and you should soon see the redness and swelling decrease.

6. Allergic Infection

Another reason to "what does it mean when your nipples hurt?" is allergy. Nipples are very sensitive and respond to changes in your surroundings. They may exhibit signs of sensitivity or allergy, including redness, itchiness and chapping. Allergic reactions can be triggered by hot or cold temperatures, soap, shower gels, creams, lotions, laundry detergents and certain fabrics, such as wool.

7. Inflammation

If the skin on your nipples is sore or cracked from feeding, this should disappear within a few days. However, bad breastfeeding technique can sometimes cause the breasts to become sore or tender. The ducts within the nipple may have become blocked and your breasts may become inflammatory due to conditions like mastitis or an abscess. This will require medical intervention. If there is bleeding or deep cracks, you could have a bacterial infection. Breasts can also become inflamed due to injury, a tight-fitting bra, etc.

If you experience the following symptoms, you will need to see a healthcare professional as soon as possible:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Discharge or bleeding from the nipples
  • Achiness, tearfulness or fatigue
  • Novel or strange breast lumps or those that have changed over time
  • Warming or reddening of the nipples or the surface of the breast
  • Wounds or sore, open cracks on the nipple or areolar surface

8. Thrush or Candidiasis

Thrush or candidiasis can also cause nipple pain. Thrush, due to infection by Candida yeast, often develops following several weeks of breastfeeding. It can cause burning, stinging or shooting pain in either or both breasts that can last over an hour after the feed. You may also have sore, flaky or cracked nipples. Your baby may have white patches around his or her mouth, which are caused by the thrush. Once diagnosed, the infection can be treated with anti-fungal creams, gels and oral pills.

9. Eczema and Contact Dermatitis

Eczema may develop on the nipple, due to irritation or allergic reaction. Half of women who experience this have previously suffered from atopic eczema. The condition manifests as a burning feeling on the nipple, areola or occasionally on the rest of the breast surface.

To relieve eczema symptoms, try to cut out anything that is irritating the skin or causing the allergic reaction and keep the area well moisturized. Your doctor may also be able to prescribe topical pain relievers and corticosteroid cream.

10. Raynaud's Syndrome

This condition is characterized by intense nipple pain immediately after a feed, especially when the nipples have been exposed to a cold environment. Raynaud's syndrome is associated with reduced blood circulation in the breasts and may be exacerbated by increased epinephrine secretion, which constricts the blood vessels. You can encourage blood flow in your breasts by applying warm compress and massaging your breasts gently.

11. Breast Cancer

The most well-known breast cancer symptom is a lump in your breast and it can also cause sore nipples. If you don't know why you have sore nipples and the pain is not getting any better, see your doctor for professional advice. It may be worrying, but the earlier breast cancer is diagnosed, the higher your chances of recovery are.

12. Paget's Disease

The last explanation for "what does it mean when your nipples hurt?" is Paget's disease. This is a rare condition with unknown cause. It causes sore nipples and has been strongly associated with breast cancer. In fact, Paget's disease is responsible for 1% of all breast cancer cases. At the initial stages of the disease, you may see reddening and crusting on the nipple. Later symptoms include tingling, itchiness, increased sensitivity and a burning or painful feeling in the breast. Paget's disease is usually treated by surgery, which may consist of radiotherapy, lumpectomy, or radical mastectomy, depending on the extent of the condition.

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