Nipples don't usually like to cause much trouble — they go along to get along, trooping around quietly in your bra until you need to unleash them for practical and/or recreational purposes — which might be why, when your nipples feel strange, it can sometimes be kind of terrifying. And that terror can easily turn into full-tilt panic: could my itchy, dry nipples be a sign of something serious? Are these random hairs going to be here for the rest of my life? Why hast thou betrayed me, beloved headlights?!
The shock of having a nipple feel weird is usually much worse than whatever's actually going on with your nipple — because, for the most part, nipple weirdness is not a sign of a serious health problem. Anything having to do with our breasts can send us into breast cancer panic mode, I know; but nipple hair and dryness have nothing to do with cancer. The most common nipple-related breast cancer symptoms are tenderness, dimpling, a change in skin texture on the nipple, and a suddenly inverted nipple (inverted nipples are common and harmless — a sudden inversion is the only cause for alarm). So anything else that you feel —a random itch, tingle, or drip — is most likely nothing to worry about.
If your nipples look or feel different than they usually do for a prolonged period of time, or if you're just freaked out, it's always a good idea to see a doctor. But if you're just experiencing one of the eight common (and harmless) nipple phenomena listed below, know that you're not malfunctioning, you're not in a danger, and you're also not alone (especially with the nipple hair).
WHY ARE MY NIPPLES SO ITCHY?
You're walking along, having a totally normal day, and suddenly, your nipples feel so itchy, it's like you're wearing a bra made of mosquitoes. What the hell is going on, and how do you stop it?
First of all: itchy nipples are almost never a sign of a health problem. In rare cases, itchy nipples can be a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer or Paget disease of the breast, but itching is almost never the only symptom. (With the extremely rare Paget's disease, for example, the itching is usually accompanied by unusual discharge and flaking skin.)
Run-of-the-mill itchy nipples have more benign causes: sometimes the itchiness is created by a skin condition, like eczema, but if you're not experiencing a rash or other symptoms, odds are that your nipples are itchy because they've become irritated — by the laundry detergent or soap that you use, by friction in an ill-fitting bra, or by dry weather that's making all of your skin dry and itchy.
Itchy nipples can also be a side effect of pregnancy-related breast growth — as a pregnant woman's breasts expand, the stretching of the skin can irritate the nipple, leading to drying, cracking, and a persistent nipple itch.
Fortunately, itchy nipples are easy to treat, for pregnant and non-pregnant folks alike — just massage some non-irritating moisturizer into your nipple, especially right after you come out of the shower. The moisture should keep your nipples calm. But no matter how itchy your nips get, don't put calamine lotion on them — that lotion can actually dry the skin of the nipple, and (horror of horrors) make the itching worse.
WHY DO I HAVE HAIR ON MY NIPPLE?
Nipple hair: I have it, you have it, Dita Von Teese has it. Okay, I don't know if you have it — the medical establishment hasn't seemed too interested in establishing firm statistics on which of us have developed hair on our boobs that look like an eighth grader's mustache — but anecdotally, it seems like a lot of us have stray hairs on our lovely lady lumps. Nipple hair growth is caused by hormonal changes (puberty, menopause, pregnancy, going on or off the pill) and is generally nothing to be concerned about. But in some cases, heavy nipple and breast hair growth could be a sign of a health problem worth consulting with your doctor about —like polycystic ovarian syndrome, or hypothyroidism.
Odds are, once your nipple hairs show up, they're here to stay. But if they really bug you, most places that do laser hair removal will remove nipple hairs, as well. Just don't use Nair, which can irritate your sensitive breast skin.
WHY DO MY NIPPLES GET ERECT WHEN I'M TURNED ON?
Not all women's nipples become erect when they are aroused, and even women who have experienced nipple erections in the past won't necessarily get them every time she feels turned on. But erect nipples are definitely a common part of the sexual package. But why?
Well, part of the way nipples behave in the bedroom is coincidental: the areolae have smooth muscle cells inside them, which contract when stimulated. Add some manual stimulation and voila: you have a nipple erection. But nipples can also play a more than coincidental role in arousal: nipple stimulation also engages the same areas of the brain that "light up" during genital stimulation, showing that nipple erections may play a key role in helping women become turned on.
WHY DO MY NIPPLES GET ERECT WHEN I'M NOT TURNED ON?
Unfortunately, the friendly smooth muscle cells in our areolae do not discriminate between a sensual caress and an itchy blouse — all stimulation can lead to the muscles contracting, which is how you end up doing something decidedly unsexy (like comparison shopping for DVRs or filling out a voter registration form) with your headlights on.
WHY DO MY NIPPLES GET ERECT WHEN IT'S COLD?
Many a trip to the grocery store freezer section has been made awkward by the sudden stiffening of your nipples. What's the deal? Well, it's all due to an involuntary reaction called the pilomotor reflex. The reflex is an evolutionary holdover from the days when we were covered in hair. In hairy animals, the pilomotor reflex pulls on the tiny muscle fibers connected to a hair follicle, causing that hair to stand straight up, which then trap warm air against our skin. But since we are no longer covered in thick layers of insulating hair, the pilomotor reflex just causes goosebumps on our skin. And when the pilomotor reflex tightens, the tiny muscles in your nipple can also make the Montgomery's gland (the tiny bumps on your nipples that secrete milk when you breastfeed) stick out more prominently, leading to the dreaded "frozen nips."
WHY DO MY NIPPLES HURT?
Even when they're not itchy or chafed, sometimes nipples can just feel ... bad. Tenderness, soreness, and sudden, shooting pain can all bedevil our nips. There are a few reasons your nipples may hurt, and most of them are hormonal — pregnant women often experience nipple tenderness due to increased hormone production, and non-pregnant women can feel nipple soreness as part of their typical premenstrual breast pain. But an ache in your top hats can also have other causess. Sometimes, nipple pain is caused by mastitis— an infection of the breast tissue that occurs primarily in nursing mothers, after bacteria enters a crack in the skin of the nipple.
I'M NOT PREGNANT, SO WHY IS STUFF COMING OUT OF MY NIPPLES?
Occasional nipple discharge among non-pregnant women (and men!) is common and almost always harmless. Women who are not currently pregant but who've breastfeed in the past can often experience sporadic nipple discharge for up to two years after they've stopped breastfeeding. Other non-serious medical problems that can cause nipple discharge include duct papilloma (a small benign growth inside the breast duct) or duct ectasia (a menopause-related shortening of the milk ducts), having an under-active thyroid, or starting to take the pill or certain SSRI antidepressants.
WHY DO NIPPLES GET DARKER WHEN You're PREGNANT?
Nipples often get darker during pregnancy — in fact, sometimes darker areolas are one of the first signs of pregnancy, with your nips taking a dive to the darker side just a few weeks after conception. But why does this happen? Your areolas darken due to hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, some of which can stimulate the amount of melanin that your body produces. This extra melanin can darken the color of your nipples, as well as your vulva, and cause skin discolorations on other parts of your body. Some nipples will return to their regular shade a few weeks after delivery, but sometimes, a richer nipple hue is there to stay. But their darker color won't impact your nipples in any way — from their sensitivity to your ability to make "tuning a radio" jokes with them when you get dressed in the morning. Thank God!