Breastfeeding is often something people expect to come "naturally," and no one talks about the very real issues that can make it difficult or even impossible. One of these problems are plugged ducts, but what are those? And, what's the difference between a plugged duct and a clogged duct? Or are they even separate issues at all?
The breasts are a complex part of a person's anatomy, comprised of a system of ducts, glands, fatty tissue and cells among various other materials that works in conjunction with the brain and hormones to create and maintain breast milk production, according to British Columbia Open Text resources. Milk is squeezed from the alveoli (essentially pockets in the breast that hold the milk) into the duct, and then those ducts empty into the lactiferous sinuses before being expressed through the nipple. When milk becomes stuck in the duct, it can cause pain and irritation. Kellymom's Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC, notes that any time in this system, milk can be blocked from passing from one phase to the next. Bonyata writes that you could experience engorgement near the area of the blockage, pain, or even develop a fever if the problem continues unrelieved.
Anyone who has had a plugged duct will tell you that it can be frustrating and painful. There was a time when it felt as though one half of my breast was going to explode because it simply would not drain. My breast looked like someone ran over half of it with a steam roller, and pumped the other half full to bursting with searing hot magma. It was red, lumpy, and wholly misshapen. I had no idea what had caused it, only that I was in pain, and everyone was telling me I had a "clogged" or "plugged duct." To me, those terms made it sound like I had a plumbing problem, not a boob issue. But alas, it was obviously a situation that needed addressed... just maybe not by a dude with a monkey wrench, even if I was desperate for relief.
But is a plugged duct the same thing as a blocked duct? You often hear the phrases used interchangeably, but is that doing a disservice to the issue at hand, further muddying the waters, and preventing necessary treatment? To find out the truth, I contacted Molly Petersen, Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) at Lansinoh, and she tells Romper that a "Plugged duct and clogged duct are two ways of talking about the same thing."
"Sometimes milk solids can build up in a specific area of the ducts that move milk through your breast," she explains. "When they cut off the flow of milk, this is a plugged/clogged duct," creating the painful sensation I described earlier.
"This can happen from not emptying the breasts frequently enough, wearing a bra that’s too tight, or any activity that puts pressure on a one part of your breast for an extended period of time," Petersen notes. I was definitely guilty of wearing bras that were too tight. Going from a barely B cup to a DD pretty much overnight, I was unprepared to dress my girls, and they did not respond kindly to their mistreatment. (Yes, I anthropomorphize my breasts, they have names, too. Moving on... )
Thankfully, there is a remedy for this problem.
"The best way to remedy a plugged/clogged duct is to apply a warm compress before feeding or pumping and then using gentle massage working from the clogged area toward the nipple," says Petersen.
Personally, I used a hot water bottle that I normally reserved for period cramps. It was only cruel torture that when I had a respite from my period, other body parts decided to act up and demand the heater treatment. If it persists, definitely talk to your OB-GYN, but otherwise, once it settles, many of us just get used to dealing with it when it happens. One of the many quotidian issues of parenthood, I think.
Molly Petersen, Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) at Lansinoh