Women’s health focuses extensively on breast health, and with good reason. Breast tissue is ever-changing in response to hormone fluctuations, puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause, general physical changes to your body, and more. It’s important for women to develop an awareness of which breast changes are harmless and which may be a cause for concern.
That means there is no one clear-cut definition of a typical breast, as there are many sizes, shapes, colors, and changes that can be considered healthy. Here’s a look at some of the harmless and the potentially dangerous breast changes you may have experienced. When in doubt, discuss the issue with your healthcare provider.
Different breast sizes among women is no surprise, but what if your own breasts get bigger or smaller over the course of your life? While pregnancy, weight loss, or weight gain may change the size of your breasts, the size is otherwise pretty much set after puberty. Changes for other reasons would be unusual. A major change in breast size that can’t be attributed to puberty, pregnancy, or weight fluctuations would be a reason to visit your doctor.
It’s not unusual to have one breast that is larger or differently shaped than the other. Young women may be alarmed by what they may consider an unusual breast change in shape, or if they notice size or shape differences between the right and left during breast development, but it’s nothing to worry about.
Some breast pain and soreness isn’t unusual: you might experience it with your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or breastfeeding. In other cases, it may be harder to determine what is causing the discomfort. It could be related to general chronic pain, anxiety, or inflammation. You don’t have to live in constant pain. If ongoing breast pain is an issue for you, visit your doctor and discuss some strategies for dealing with or eliminating it. Holistic medicine approaches may include normalizing your estrogen levels, taking supplements, and more.
There is both normal and abnormal nipple discharge. Cleveland Clinic says harmless discharge can be a result of sexual stimulation, certain medications (like birth control), stress, hormonal imbalances, or, of course, pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Discharge is abnormal when it’s bloody, occurs without breast stimulation, or is only happening on one side. These discharges may be caused by a breast infection, a noncancerous tumor called a papilloma, a fluid-filled milk duct, or breast cancer.
These are called Montgomery glands and they look like little white spots or bumps on the nipple and areola; they often become more pronounced during pregnancy. However, hormonal changes related to birth control pills, menstruation, or menopause can also cause a change in the size or number of them.
Sometimes they fill with a waxy substance and start to look like a pimple. These are called Montgomery tubercles; they are also harmless.
Areola Shape and Color
Areolas naturally come in different sizes and shapes; how yours look is mostly due to genetics. You may experience changes in size or color during pregnancy or other hormonal changes; they often return to their original color as you move past breastfeeding.
While finding a breast lump can be frightening, remain calm. About 80 percent of lumps are benign, so just because you find a lump doesn’t mean you have breast cancer. However, it is very important to visit your health care provider to determine if the lump is a cyst, an infection, or a cancerous tumor.
Your doctor will perform a breast exam, a mammogram or ultrasound, and perhaps some other diagnostic tests.
Hair on the Nipples
It’s just like the hair on the rest of your body! As you get older, hormonal changes may cause this hair to get coarser or darker. Although many women don’t like it, it’s not dangerous. You can remove it with laser hair removal and other hair removal techniques. Be careful with shaving or tweezing, as you could cause an infection.
If you notice sudden and extensive hair growth in combination with other symptoms like irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, cysts, mood swings, and more, it may be a sign of something more serious. Consult with your naturopathic medicine physician to rule out potential conditions.
If one or both nipples have always been inverted, it’s no cause for concern. Inversion can also happen gradually over the course of several years, or during or after pregnancy or a surgery. About 10 percent of women have at least one inverted nipple, and there are no health problems associated with it.
Inverted nipples can, however, make breastfeeding more difficult. Fortunately, there are several solutions. Work with your midwife or health care provider to see what works best for you.
Changes to the Skin
If the skin on your breast changes, it may be a skin condition that could happen anywhere else on your body, such as a sunburn, eczema, or an allergic reaction. Psoriasis and shingles can show up on breast skin, too; while those conditions do require treatment, they are not related to breast health.
However, there are some changes that could indicate Paget’s disease or another breast cancer. If you notice flaky skin around the nipple, dimpling or puckering, rashes, redness, swelling, or thickening of the skin, see your doctor.
What’s a Healthy Breast for You?
Every woman is different. What’s healthy and typical for you may not be so for someone else. Performing regular breast self-exams is the best way to determine what “normal” means for your body and your breasts. The better acquainted you are with your breasts, the better you’ll be able to recognize safe, natural breast changes as well as any changes that may indicate cancer, infection, or another issue.
Contact an Expert
For more information about holistic medicine and women’s health, or if you notice any changes in your breasts that are alarming, please contact Dr. Karen Threlkel, a naturopathic women’s health doctor in the Washington, D.C. area.