A clogged milk duct is one that becomes swollen and blocked. Most clogged milk ducts clear up within 24-48 hours. However, it is not recommended to simply leave it. There are steps you can take to prevent a blocked duct from developing into an infection known as mastitis.
Mastitis will take much longer to pass on its own and may require medical treatment if it is really severe. It can take up to 10 days for it to clear up, while a clogged duct will take much less time.
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What is a clogged duct?
It can happen for a number of reasons. Your breast contains anywhere from 4 to 18 milk ducts. It happens when the milk flowing from a duct becomes obstructed in some way.
The milk builds up, and this then becomes clogged or blocked.
As more milk builds, your breast can then feel sore and tender and it may become a little painful to breastfeed or pump.
The signs of a clogged duct
Besides tenderness, there are other signs to look out for that will indicate a blocked milk duct. These are sure-fire ways to know if you have a blocked duct rather than mastitis.
First, we shall look at the signs of a clogged duct before looking at the symptoms of mastitis, so you can understand the difference in symptoms and know when to seek medical help.
- You may find a hard and painful lump in the affected breast.
- The affected breast may also feel warmer than normal while the skin may show redness.
- Usually only one breast is affected.
- While it is more tender before a feed, you may feel some relief, although small, after a feed.
- The flow of milk from the affected breast will be slower. This is due to the clogged duct creating pressure on the other ducts around it, resulting in the ducts collapsing. Rest assured, this is only temporary, and once the clog clears, the other ducts should flow freely as well.
The symptoms of mastitis are much more severe. According to NHS.uk, these are:
- The affected breast may become hot and swollen. Redness can also occur.
- A hard area may appear on your breast. This may also have a wedge-shape to it.
- A burning pain in the affected breast that can either be continuous or only when you try to feed.
- You may experience nipple discharge, which can be white or contain streaks of blood.
- Flu-like symptoms such as high temperature, aches and chills. However, not all women experience flu symptoms with mastitis.
If you think you have mastitis, you must speak to your doctor. They may prescribe antibiotics to clear any infection.
If your blocked duct does not clear after 24-48 hours and the symptoms gradually worsen, this could be mastitis.
Causes of a clogged duct
There are several causes of a blocked milk duct. The main cause is when not enough milk is removed from the breast during feeding or pumping. This can also include a missed feed.
There are also risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing blocked ducts. Healthline.com states that if you experience any of these, the chances of a blocked duct and mastitis increase:
- History of mastitis while breastfeeding
- Cracked skin on the nipple area
Besides the more obvious ones mentioned above, there are other less obvious causes that can lead to clogged ducts. We shall look at several more common reasons why a milk duct can end up blocked.
Incorrect flange size on your breast pump
The flange is the shaped cup or shield that sits over your nipple when you use a breast pump. The average flange is between 24 and 27 mm.
For most women, this size will fit them. However, if it does not, it can lead to blockages and inflammation.
When the flange is too small, it can cause the nipple to rub against the shield, irritating the skin. Too big, and it can cause the milk to go back up in the ducts, becoming trapped.
Did you know that this is one of the most common causes for a clogged milk duct? Therefore, you must make sure that the flange fits properly to prevent any problems arising.
Breastfeeding comes with many challenges. It takes time and practice to perfect and every baby is different.
Sometimes a poor latch is out of your control, such as your baby being tongue-tied – this is where the skin connecting their tongue to the bottom of their mouth is too short.
This restricts the tongue movement, making it harder for the baby to obtain a proper latch. If this is not the case, there are steps you take to ensure your baby gets a proper latch, limiting the chances of developing a clogged duct.
Firstly, always make sure your whole baby’s body is facing you, not just their head.
Their chin should touch your breast first, but their nose should be free so they can breathe easily whilst feeding.
Make sure they take as much of the areola as possible. You can use your fingers to guide their mouth if required. If they only latch onto the nipple, use your finger to break the latch and try again.
Once they are latched, your baby’s lips should turn out, their mouth should cover the whole nipple area and you should hear or see swallowing.
Feeding from one breast more than the other
When breastfeeding, you should always ensure both your breasts are emptied equally. When one is emptied more than the other, an imbalance can occur, resulting in clogged ducts.
The same will apply when using a pump.
If you can, try to get your baby feeding on the affected breast first to help clear the clog. Try different positions to see if it helps with their latch.
If it is too painful, try to alternate during feeding, but do not omit the painful breast, as this can lead to mastitis. Avoidance of expressing milk from the affected breast takes us on to the next point.
Not feeding enough
As painful as it can be, you must persist in removing milk from the affected breast. Leaving the milk there will only result in even more build-up.
As already discussed, this can lead to further complications.
The general advice is to either pump or feed every 2 to 3 hours. Always empty your breasts each time.
If your baby refuses to take any more milk from you, use your pump to extract what is left to reduce the chances of milk building up in the ducts.
Also, keep the feeding schedule regular to keep a good supply of milk. Try not to skip feeds.
If you cannot feed your baby at a specific time for whatever reason, use your pump instead, as your body won’t know the difference between the pump and your baby, just as long as you are removing the milk at regular intervals.
Believe it or not, tight clothing can affect the flow of milk through the ducts. If your bra is too tight, it can put pressure on your breast and restrict the milk flow.
Therefore, you should always wear a bra that fits correctly, perhaps opting for bras that do not have underwire such as nursing bras or t-shirt bras.
Most nursing bras do not come with underwire and are designed to fit your changing breast size as they increase to accommodate your milk supply.
Although some mothers do prefer going braless, others may feel more comfortable with a bra, especially if they are not used to having larger breasts. There is also an issue with leakage.
There are pads on the market to slip into your bra, to absorb any milk escaping, especially if you are out in public.
Does it affect milk supply?
While a blocked duct can be a miserable and painful experience, it certainly can reduce your supply temporarily from the affected breast. As discussed, this is simply down to the blocked duct creating pressure on the surrounding ducts, causing them to collapse.
Therefore, it is important to ensure you express the milk from the affected breast as much as you can to clear the blockage.
What can I do if it doesn’t clear up?
There are other things you can try as well to remove the clog quicker and get yourself back to normal. Not only is a clogged duct painful, it can also be frustrating and affect your day-to-day living.
Here are some other things you can try to alleviate the pain and remove the blockage.
Many mothers sweat by taking this supplement. It is known to support breastfeeding by increasing the number of fatty acids in your breastmilk.
This makes it flow easier, reducing the chances of it building up in your ducts.
As always, before you start taking any supplements, always speak to your doctor first.
Another good tip is to massage your breast during feeding or pumping. This helps the milk to flow down. The action can also help to break up the blockage.
Massage vibrators designed for this are a great option for those women who experience blockages frequently.
They are shaped to fit the affected area and are even waterproof, so can be used in the shower or bath.
Another great way to ease discomfort is by placing a warm compress on the affected breast. A hot shower is another option, as the heat has been shown to help in such situations.
However, be careful not to make the water too hot.
Many mothers swear by this technique. The Haakaa is a small manual pump made from silicone you can fill with Epsom salts and hot water.
To do this, fill the pump about halfway with warm water, then add 1-2 tablespoons of Epsom salts. Attach the pump to your breast and leave for 10-15 minutes.
This device not only incorporates a suction action to help remove the blockage, the salts also help to aid in soothing the affected breast.
While a clogged milk duct is not normally serious and should clear after 12-48 hours, this article has shown there are ways to minimize it happening as well as what to do if it does.
It is a frustrating and painful condition, but one that should only be temporary.
If the clog does not clear after a few days or the pain increases, always speak to your doctor as it may be mastitis which could require medication.