Should you worry if you have nipple discharge?

Because breasts are glands, they can occasionally secrete fluids, even when a woman has never been pregnant. Benign illnesses, not cancer, are more likely to be the cause of nipple discharge. But only a visit with your physician or gynaecologist can give you peace of mind.

Because breasts are glands, they can occasionally secrete fluids, even when a woman has never been pregnant. Benign illnesses, not cancer, are more likely to be the cause of nipple discharge. But only a visit with your physician or gynaecologist can give you peace of mind.

Unless a woman is lactating, the fluid secreted is referred to as nipple discharge. It may occur in one or both breasts, either spontaneously or when pressure is applied to the breast or nipple. The colour and consistency of the discharge vary. The discharge can be milky white, yellow, green, brown or bloody, and be either thin and watery, or thick and sticky.

Nipple discharge may be part of the normal physiological process and resolve on its own. You must avoid stimulating the nipple, by frequently checking for discharge, as it will only make it persist.

Other than “normal” physiological functioning, possible causes include the following:

Mammary duct ectasia is a dilatation of the mammary duct and one of the most common causes of nipple discharge. It occurs when a galactophore duct becomes inflamed and clogged with a thick, sticky, green or black substance. Symptoms are most often treated by applying warm compresses and taking an analgesic, and perhaps an antibiotic.

Intraductal papilloma is a small benign growth that lodges itself in one galactophore duct and must be surgically removed. The discharge may be bloody or sticky.

Galactorrhea occurs when the body generates too much prolactin, a hormone produced by the brain to stimulate milk production after having given birth. The discharge is usually white or clear but can also be yellow or green. The physician will try to identify and correct the cause of the galactorrhea.

Injury to the breasts, in a road accident or a hit during a rugby match for example, can cause discharge in both breasts. Discharge usually occurs suddenly and may be clear, yellow or bloody.

Abscesses occur most often in women who are breast feeding. They are caused by bacteria that invade the breast tissue through a break or a crack in the skin, triggering an infection. The nipple discharge may contain pus and the breast may become red, swollen and warm to the touch.

Fibrocystic changes are changes in the density of the breast tissue that renders the breast very tender. The discharge can be clear, yellow or light green. This phenomenon is quite common and occurs, to varying degrees, in about half of all women.

Breast cancer is rarely the cause of nipple discharge. However, you should see your physician as soon as possible if the discharge is bloody, spontaneous and occurs in only one breast.

You can take comfort in knowing that most nipple discharges are the result of benign illnesses. Nevertheless, you should consult your physician rapidly if you notice a change in your breasts or nipples, as the underlying problem may require treatment.

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