Breastfeeding comes with a variety of challenges that range from annoying to downright scary. Clogged ducts are one of the most painful challenges for nursing moms, and if not resolved, can result in a medical condition called mastitis. Simply put, mastitis is inflammation of the breast tissue that can be caused by obstruction of milk flow, according to Kelly Mom. Because mastitis can cause fever and infection, antibiotics are often prescribed, but if you are hesitant to take medication while breastfeeding, you may find yourself asking the question — Does mastitis go away without antibiotics?
I asked lactation consultants to explain whether or not mastitis can be treated without antibiotics, and the short answer is that it truly depends. Factors like how long your duct has been clogged, how high your fever gets, and whether or not an infection has set in all contribute to whether you can cure your mastitis without antibiotics.
Lynnette Hafken, MA, IBCLC, with the Fed Is Best Foundation tells Romper that "when a mother is experiencing flu-like symptoms or has a temperature above 101.5, she needs antibiotics." She also says, "Mastitis is extremely painful and can develop into sepsis if not treated promptly."
The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine's clinical protocol for mastitis advises providers treating women with mastitis that if symptoms are "mild and have been present less than 24 hours," antibiotics may not be necessary and the condition can likely resolve without intervention. But if risk factors for infection are present or symptoms do not improve within 24 hours, antibiotics are indicated by their guidelines.
Hafken says that some women describe mastitis to her as feeling like they have been "hit by a truck,” “hallucinating from fever dreams,” and breasts that feel "like they’re on fire," in addition to the physical symptoms seen in the breast. "It can come on suddenly or be preceded by clogged milk ducts or blocked nipple pores. Usually a mother will notice a painful lump with reddened skin that is hot to the touch," Hafken tells Romper. "She may also feel excessively tired or like she’s getting sick. Inflammation of the breast can quickly turn into infective mastitis, so it’s important to treat any blockages promptly."
Danielle Downs Spradlin, IBCLC, CLC with Oasis Lactation Services recommends that moms experiencing mastitis use warm compresses to relieve pain and take ibuprofen to help with pain and inflammation, as well as get as much rest as possible, regardless of whether their Mastitis needs antibiotics. "Mastitis tends to escalate more frequently in mothers who are over stressed. Staying in bed with your nursling has amazing benefits," Spradlin says.
Because mastitis can caused by clogged ducts, it is important to ensure that regardless of whether antibiotics are needed or not, you continue to keep milk flowing through the breast as much as possible. "Above all, clogs need to be cleared and the milk needs to keep flowing out of the breasts regularly and thoroughly," Hafken says. "Mothers often wonder if it is safe to nurse on a breast affected by mastitis, and the answer is absolutely! The milk is still good for the baby, and emptying the breast will help relieve some of the inflammation."
Although sometimes mastitis is not preventable and if it gets too bad you could need antibiotics, getting ahead of clogged ducts can help reduce your chances of developing mastitis. In addition to frequent pumping or nursing to keep breasts from becoming engorged and avoiding excessively tight clothing or underwire bras, Hafken recommends moms work to keep their breasts in tip-top shape while breastfeeding. "Keep any broken skin on the nipples clean. Although you may have heard never to put soap on your nipples, the exception to that rule is when you have broken skin, because it can be an entry point for bacteria," Hafken tells Romper. "Making sure the baby’s latch is good each and every time is also a good preventative measure." Keeping these tips in mind, as well as getting plenty of rest, can help prevent your milk from backing up and causing mastitis, reducing the chances of needing antibiotics to clear up an infection.