11 Reasons Your Nipples Might Be Leaking

woman covering her chest
Chiara Padula Diaz / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: why your nipples are leaking.

Q: This is kinda embarrassing, but my nipples recently started to leak. I’m not talking full-on milk or something — it’s more like I notice it on my bra, but it’s definitely there and it’s super stressful. I’m always worried it’s going to leak through my shirt. I’ve started wearing bandaids over my nipples whenever I go out, which is uncomfortable and clearly isn’t solving anything. Is there anything I can do about this? Also, could nipples leaking be a sign of a health problem?

A: Nipples on female-bodied humans are created to discharge milk, because that’s how we feed our tiny humans if we make any. However, there are a ton of reasons why your nipples could be excreting fluid when no baby-making is involved. The good news is that most of these are non-stressful reasons (at least medically speaking — suddenly having stuff coming out of a place where no stuff has come out before can be somewhat alarming). However, there are some medical conditions that necessitate a visit to the doctor.

Let's take a look at 11 reasons your nipples might be leaking — and when you should worry about it.

1. Your Nipples Got Over-Stimulated

Sounds weird but it’s true: excessive breast stimulation can cause your nipples to gush a bit. This can be caused by being fondled, but also by irritation from your clothes if, for instance, your boobs are bouncing around in a sports bra as you’re running and get chafed as a result. So if you’ve worked out vigorously or had a long sexy engagement in the recent past, that might be the cause of your discomfort.

2. You're Stressed Out

Stress can also cause your nipples to discharge. When you’re stressed, your body releases prolactin, an acute stress hormone. Prolactin causes milky white nipple discharge. If you notice your discharge is related to a stressful incident in your life, or just a general veneer of stress over your entire life (hey it happens), you might want to fall back on whatever helps you zen out.

3. It's Something You’re Taking

A bunch of medications can cause nipple discharge, including oral hormonal birth control and some antidepressants. Some herbs can also cause leakage; these include anise and fennel. Finally, marijuana, morphine, and heroin have also been leaked to nipple discharge. If you’re on any of these prescribed drugs and notice nipple discharge, talk to your doctor about switching up your meds for something less leaky. As for the herbs and drugs, you might want to cut those out of your diet as well.

4. You Have Fibrous Breasts

Fibrous breasts have tissue that feels like coils of rope or, as a doctor told me once when I was but a young and impressionable teen with low self-esteem, “lumpy bumpy”. Other medical terms for this type of breast tissue include "nodular" or "glandular". This is super common, with over half of female-born humans experiencing fibrous breasts at least once in their lives. That's right — your breast texture can change over time. Often, these changes are totally fine, but sometimes they can feel not great; fibrous breast tissue can be painful or itchy, and it can come with nipple discharge that is either clear, white, yellow, or green. If you notice that along with your nipple discharge your breast texture is lumpy, talk to your doctor about it.

5. Your Menstrual Hormones Are Fluctuating

As you might know if you have experienced the hormonal rollercoaster that is menstruation, hormone levels are peaking and diving all the time. One of the potential side effects of these changes is nipple discharge. If this is happening to you, talk to your gynecologist about birth control options that might help (remembering of course that birth control itself can cause leakage).

6. You Could Be Pregnant

When you’re pregnant, your body is also readying itself for lactation, which can cause your nipples can discharge. This usually happens in the last weeks of your pregnancy. This is totally normal, even if the discharge has some blood in it. It should go away on its own.

7. You Were Breastfeeding Recently

Unsurprisingly, if you had a baby recently and breastfed them, you could still be discharging from that experience. Lots of people get milky discharge during the time they are breastfeeding, but this can actually continue for as many as two years after they’ve stopped nursing. This is totally normal — although if it’s been longer than that, you may want to check in with your doctor.

8. Your Breast Is Infected

If your nipple discharge has pus in it, that could be an indication that you have an infection or abscess in your breast. This is actually pretty common in people who are breastfeeding, but it can also happen when you’re not. Breast infections or abscesses usually come along with breast soreness, redness, or warmth. If you notice these symptoms, talk to your doctor to get that infection taken care of.

9. You Have Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a common disorder in which your thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone. This is less than ideal, because your thyroid controls how your cells metabolize energy, which in turn affects your temperature and the rate of your heartbeat. Without enough thyroid hormone, your body slows down and you can feel sluggish. Another side effect of hypothyroidism is — you guessed it — nipple discharge. So if in addition to leaky nipples you’re feeling less energized than usual, ask your doctor to test your thyroid hormone levels to make sure you don’t have hypothyroidism.

10. You Have A Non-Cancerous Breast Tumor

Nipple discharge can also indicate that you have an intraductal papilloma, which is a noncancerous (also called benign) tumor that grows in breast ducts. These can show up suddenly in a single breast duct and cause nipple discharge that is bloody or sticky; they are actually the most common reason behind abnormal nipple leakage. While these tumors can go away on their own, you should still get an ultrasound from your doctor to make sure you’re all good.

11. You Could Have Breast Cancer

Let me start by saying that by far, most nipple discharge causes are not cancer. However, one symptom of breast cancer is nipple discharge, so if in addition to discharge you notice a lump in your breast, the discharge comes out on its own — aka without you squeezing your breast, the leakage contains blood, and/or you notice that only one breast and especially only one part of your breast is leaking — go to your doctor to get screened.

The Bottom Line

Suddenly experiencing fluid coming out of a new part of yourself can be freaky. Besides the scenarios I mentioned above that necessitate a doctors visit, when else should you get to your GP ASAP?

Panic Reason #1: If your nipple is discharging spontaneously, as in not just when you squeeze your boob, that’s more likely to be something worrisome. If the stuff only comes out when you’re squeezing, stop doing that. To know if you are spontaneously discharging, you can check the inside of your bra or shirt to see if there’s any residue from non-squeezing activities.

Panic Reason #2: Discharge can come in a shocking array of colors, but the ones you need to worry about are either clear or bloody red. Apparently yellow or greenish, while very odd, are not indicative of scary underlying medical issues.

Panic Reason #3: If the discharge is only coming out of one nipple, or more specifically only one spot of one nipple, take note and tell your doctor. This is important to know because it means something’s wrong with one or a couple of your ducts, which can indicate a health condition that a doctor needs to address.

Panic Reason #4: If you are male (as in, born with male parts and aren’t taking gender reassignment hormones) and you’re experiencing nipple discharge, this is not normal no matter what the discharge looks like. You should pay a visit to your doctor to get checked out.

Having an unidentified substance start gushing out of you can be alarming, to say the least. However, all the research shows that most reasons behind nipple discharge are not life threatening. So if this is happening to you, take a deep breath, and then go visit your doctor to rule out anything scary.

Images: Chiara Padula Diaz / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images; Giphy