Have you thought about your nipples lately? Aside from recent ventures into the news for the Free The Nipple campaign, women often don't pay much attention to these highly sensitive parts of their body. They're one of our erogenous zones, and are part of the same set of arousal signals to the brain as the cervix, vagina, and clitoris. (If your sex partner is neglecting your nipples, you're likely missing out.) Nipples get a lot of attention in pregnancy, largely because they start doing thoroughly mysterious things like getting sore and darker, but they deserve a bit of love the rest of the time too — because our nipples can actually tell us about our health.
Nipples aren't the window to the soul, but they can be pretty good signals of particular health conditions and changes to the breasts and hormones. And no, there's no need for concern if yours are droopy, pronounced, small, big, hairy, whatever. The real reason for you to sit up and pay attention to your nipples is if they suddenly change in any way: produce something different, look a new shape, suddenly invert, hurt, or become really sore or itchy. Then you have to play Nipple Detective, which sounds like great sexy fun but probably isn't.
So next time your nipples do something inexplicable, grab this guide, don't panic, and go track down the precise cause of their discomfort.
1. "You Might Be Pregnant"
Soreness in the nipple area is one of the clearest folk medicine signs that you're preggers. But, crucially, it won't just be the nipples that get sore: it will be the whole tissue of both breasts. The tissue in this part of your body is very sensitive to hormonal shifts, and pregnancy is one of the biggest upheavals your body's hormonal system will ever have. Breasts become heavier because pregnancy hormones increase your blood volume.
2. "We're Infected"
Yes, you can get thrush of the nipples — and it can hurt like the blazes. Nipple infections are more common than you think, particularly if the skin on your nipples is already cracked or vulnerable because of eczema or jogger's nipple. It's most commonly seen during breastfeeding (babies have dirty mouths), but itchy or sore nipples in the decidedly un-pregnant are a possible sign that the nipple may be infected, with thrush or some other kind of bacteria, and you may require antibiotics.
3. "We Shouldn't Be Bleeding Unless You're Breastfeeding"
4. "You Might Have Ectasia"
This sounds kind of gross, but it's actually not all that worrisome. Mammary duct ectasia, which is most common in women over 45, happens when a milk duct in your breast widens and gets clogged. It's painful and a bit startling, but it's not a sign of cancer.
Ectasia may turn into mastitis, infection of the breast, which isn't surprising considering that a key part of the fluid circulation of the breast is being clogged. But it does mean other symptoms: pain, swelling, and itching, plus a possible inversion of the nipple. It'll likely go away with antibiotics, though if it's really stubborn, the blocked duct may have to be surgically removed. It's all good, though: it's not very common, and, like many of these nipple-related problems, will clear up with a visit to your GP or gynecologist.
5. "You Don't Need To Freak Out If We Get Darker"
6. "...But We Shouldn't Suddenly Become Inverted"
If you've had an inverted nipple since birth, it's no biggie. It's just a thing, and nobody has ever associated it with health conditions. But a nipple that has suddenly inverted — i.e., suddenly turned inward as opposed to poking outward — may be associated with the development of breast cancer, and you need to get it checked out.
There are exceptions. An inverted nipple is caused by the breast tissue being contracted and pulling it inward, which can be caused by a variety of things, like genetics, a blow to the breast, or pregnancy. If it's suddenly happened, though, the rule is to go get it checked. It may be Paget's disease of the nipple, a kind of breast cancer.
7. "This Sports Bra Is No Bueno"
Nipples are also quite sensitive things, so soreness may be because of irritation or the lovely condition known as "jogger's nipple". Friction against the nipple while you're exercising can cause it to get sore, red and itchy, or have its skin flake off. Recommended fixes include better sports bras, non-chafing balms like Vaseline, and covers applied to the nipple area before you exercise.
It may, however, also be a sign of what's called "contact dermatitis," or extremely sensitive skin inflamed by some particular substance. If you've got hurting, itchy nipples, think back: did you recently change your shampoo, body lotion, soap, bath oils, laundry detergent, or anything else that could come into contact with your nipples? If so, stop it and see if the situation resolves itself. Nancy Drew to the nipple rescue.
8. "This Medication Is Causing A Reaction"
Interestingly, some psychological medications are known to cause nipple reactions. Various antidepressants, from SSRIs to MAOIs, have been linked to nipple discharge, as have standard anti-psychotics, some anti-histamines, amphetamines, hormones, and some varieties of the Pill.
Herbal remedies have also been shown to produce harmless breast discharge in some women, from fenugreek (which was, historically, used to promote milk flow and help digestive problems) to anise and fennel. So if you suddenly discover a soaked part in your bra, think back to whatever herbal fixes you've been taking recently, and always check side effects before you nab something at the market.
9. "This Discharge Is A Sign Of Bigger Problems"
Most adult women will, when they squeeze their nipples, see some kind of discharge. It's normal; these are milk-making machines, and even if you're not pregnant, you'll likely have a bit of fluid in there anyway. But discharge that's unprompted can actually be a pretty good way of signalling other problems in the body.