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You likely don’t spend too much time thinking about your boobs day to day, but if you’re dealing with nipple pain, you probably can’t think about much else. So what does it mean when your nipple hurts anyway?
While nipple pain isn’t generally a major cause for concern, sharp pain in nipples, itching, swelling, or discharge should definitely be addressed and, in some cases, examined and treated by a healthcare professional, says gynecologist Stacy De-Lin, MD, the associate medical director at Planned Parenthood in Hudson Peconic, New York.
To help you answer the question “why does my nipple hurt?” we spoke with Dr. De-Lin and Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, about some potential causes of nipple pain. Plus, what to do about each and when to make an appointment with a doctor so you can rule out anything serious or get on top of treatment.
Why Does My Nipple Hurt?
Nipple pain can happen for a number of reasons, from hormonal changes to an allergic reaction. But knowing the potential causes can help point you toward the right healthcare team or home solution.
You’re Experiencing Hormonal Changes
If you’re someone whose boobs swell up whenever you get your period, you know firsthand the impact hormonal fluctuations can have on breasts. And guess what? Even if you’ve never experienced nipple pain before around your period, it’s totally plausible that time of the month may be to blame for your discomfort.
“Changes in estrogen and progesterone cause breast tissue to swell and can lead to nipple sensitivity and discomfort,” explains Dr. De-Lin. These hormonal shifts don’t just come around when you’re getting your period, either, she tells POPSUGAR. “If you’re pregnant, just had a baby, are going through perimenopause, or just changed your birth control, your hormones will fluctuate, and nipple pain can be a side effect. While it’s nothing to worry about, it can definitely be uncomfortable.”
Depending on the exact cause of your pain, hormonal birth control may help stabilize your estrogen and progesterone levels, which can help nip your nipple pain in the bud, Dr. De-Lin says. If your discomfort sticks around longer than a week or majorly impacts your day-to-day, ask your OBGYN if they think this could be a good solution for you.
You Have an Infection
Yup, you can get infections on your nips. In fact, infection is one of the most common causes of nipple pain. If you’re experiencing a heat-like sensation, swelling, or an itch around your nipple, that could be exactly what’s going on. “These sensations are generally caused by increased blood flow to the area, which the body dispatches to fight off the infection,” Dr. De-Lin says.
Two common nipple infections are mastitis and thrush, and these generally occur among breastfeeding women, Dr. De-Lin says. Mastitis, an inflammation of the breast, is usually caused by a blocked milk duct. “A duct can become blocked if your baby isn’t draining all the milk during feeds,” Dr. De-Lin explains.
Thrush, on the other hand, is a yeast infection of the nipples. It usually develops when the breasts are overly filled with milk, which causes the delicate skin around the nips to stretch and eventually crack. Once the skin is broken, the candida fungus that causes thrush can get inside the nipple, leading to an infection, explains Dr. Jaliman. “The nipple and surrounding area will look red, cracked, and swollen, and you may feel itchy or have a sharp pain in your nipples,” Dr. Jaliman explains.
If either condition develops while breastfeeding, reach out to your obstetrician — especially if you also have a fever. “In addition to using ice and anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, to reduce the pain and swelling, you may need prescription medication,” Dr. De-Lin says.
Not a mama? If you shave your nipple hair or have recently pierced your nips, those things can also lead to infection. “After getting a nipple piercing, you may have some pain, soreness, or bleeding for a week or so. It’s just the area is healing and isn’t anything to worry about so long as you’re keeping the wound clean, explains Dr. Jaliman. “However, if you have nipple discharge, swelling, redness, or body aches, you should see a doctor,” she adds.These symptoms can be a sign of infection.
Similarly, if you shave your nip hair, you could nick your skin, creating an opening for infection-causing germs. In this case, see a healthcare professional if your nipples are swollen or tender, Dr. Jailiman recommends.
You’re Wearing the Wrong Workout Clothes
Love running long distances? Then it’s about time you learned about a condition aptly called ‘jogger’s nipple,’ which develops when clothing repeatedly rubs against the nips. If your sports bra is too loose, for example, the fabric can shift around the breasts, causing chafing and painful abrasions that are red, chapped, or cracked, Dr. Jaliman says.
“To protect your nipples while they heal and ward off future abrasions, consider covering your nipple with special bandages or using an anti-chafing balm such as Body Glide. Sometimes, using talcum powder on the nipples helps, too. It absorbs moisture, so your nipples are less likely to chafe,” Dr. Jaliman says. It can also be helpful to get professionally fitted for your sports bra — and be sure to get one made from a breathable material, Dr. Jaliman adds. (Start doing your homework before your fitting by learning more about some of the best sports bras to buy in 2023.)
You Have a Dermatologic Condition
As a reminder, symptoms of eczema, according to the National Institutes of Health, may include:
- Red, dry patches of skin
- Rashes that may ooze or bleed when scratched
- Thickening and hardening of the skin
Symptoms of psoriasis, according to the National Institutes of Health, may include:
- Patches of thick, red skin with silvery-white scales that itch or burn
- Dry, cracked skin that itches or bleeds
Before using any topical treatments you’ve been prescribed for your condition, check with your dermatologist to make sure they’re safe to use on the sensitive skin around your nipples, Dr. Jaliman suggests.
You’re Having an Allergic Reaction
If you don’t have a skin condition, you could just have a run-of-the-mill allergic reaction. “Breasts and nipples are sensitive, and the skin can be easily irritated,” Dr. Jaliman says. “An allergic reaction to things like fabric softener and scented detergents can cause irritation, discomfort, and nipple pain. Discontinue their use, and see if the area clears up. If you’re not feeling better in two or three days, I recommend seeing a doctor.”
Moving forward, look for unscented, hypoallergenic products to keep your nips from having a bad reaction, Dr. Jaliman suggests.
You’re Into Nipple Play
Nips have a high concentration of nerve endings, so nipple play can take your time between the sheets to a new level. Just one word of warning: If your nipples are getting pinched, rubbed, bitten, or clamped, you might experience some pain afterward — even if it feels good while you’re in the moment. “Anything that causes friction, including nipple manipulation during sex, can cause irritation and pain,” Dr. Jaliman says.
To help the healing process, Dr. De-Lin says to take a little break from whatever you’re doing in the bedroom that’s causing your discomfort and apply gentle, unscented topical ointments, taking care to avoid anything that contains alcohol. (This option from CeraVe fits the bill.) And in the future, consider nipple play that includes some type of lubrication, like licking or sucking.
You Have Paget’s Disease
While it shouldn’t be the first thing you worry about, nipple pain that lasts for more than a few weeks can point to Paget’s Disease, a rare type of breast cancer that affects the nipples.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and they linger for more than a few days, Dr. De-Lin recommends seeing a healthcare professional as soon as you can:
- Sharp pain in nipples
- A burning sensation, tingling, itching, scaling, crusty or hardened skin
- A lump in the breast
- Flattening of the nipple
- Nipple discharge
The Bottom Line
If you’ve been quietly panicking and wondering, “Why do my nipples hurt?” or “Why do my nipples hurt when touched?”, don’t jump to any scary conclusions.
Most of the time, there’s nothing to worry about, and there are straightforward ways to address what’s going on. (Phew!) However, if you notice nipple discharge, a breast lump, hardened skin, swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, or nipple pain that wakes you up at night, definitely see a doctor, Dr. De-Lin says.
You should also get in touch with a healthcare provider if you’ve been following their suggested nipple pain treatments and you’re not seeing any improvement. You may need a different medical intervention or some type of biopsy to rule out anything more serious, Dr. Jaliman says.