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? What about this sudden, unexpected nipple discharge? Why hast thou betrayed me, beloved headlights?!
The shock of having a nipple feel "off" is usually much worse than whatever's actually going on with it — because, for the most part, nipple weirdness is not a sign of a serious health problem.
Anything having to do with our breasts can instantly send us into breast cancer panic mode, I know. But according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 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 in and of themselves— but a sudden inversion is cause for alarm). So anything else that you feel —a random itch, tingle, or dryness — 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 a good idea to see a doctor — they can look for any underlying health issues, and put your mind at ease. But know that a strange feeling is nothing to panic about — it might just be a sign you need to change your laundry detergent.
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? Should you be worried? And how do you stop it?
First of all, know that itchy nipples are nothing to panic about. As Shubhada Dhage, MD, MD, Associate Director of the NYU Winthrop Hospital Breast Health Program and Director, Breast Surgical Services, tells Bustle, "itchy nipples are rarely a sign of a serious health problem." In very 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. (For example, in cases of Paget's disease, the itching is usually accompanied by unusual discharge and flaking skin.)
Rather, says Dhage, itchy nipples are most common among folks who are pregnant or nursing — as a pregnant person's breasts expand, the stretching of the skin can irritate the nipple, leading to drying, cracking, and a persistent nipple itch. Nipple itchiness can often also often be "due to an allergic reaction to detergents, garment materials, dry skin, or changes in breast size."
Fortunately, itchy nipples are easy to treat — Dhage recommends topical application of "over the counter treatments include lotions for sensitive skin that contain Vitamin E , cocoa butter, or shea butter," as well as lanolin for breast-feeding folks.
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 traps 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 during breastfeeding) 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 for this. "Nipple tenderness or soreness may be associated with hormonal changes." says Dhage. According to the American Pregnancy Association, pregnant people often experience nipple tenderness due to increased hormone production; non-pregnant people may feel nipple soreness as part of their typical premenstrual breast pain.
But an ache in your high-hats can also have other causes. Sometimes, nipple pain is caused by mastitis— an infection of the breast tissue that occurs primarily during periods of breastfeeding, after bacteria enters a crack in the skin of the nipple.
"However," emphasizes Dhage, "it is important to examine your nipples and make sure that you do not have any discharge, redness, or changes in the skin." If you do, get in touch with your doctor ASAP.
I'm Not Pregnant, So Why Is Stuff Coming Out Of My Nipples?
People who are not currently pregnant but who've breastfeed in the past can often experience sporadic nipple discharge for up to two years after they've stopped breastfeeding. So even if your kid switched from breast milk to Cheerios a while ago, this discharge isn't something to panic about.
However, cautions Dhage, "if the discharge is spontaneous or bloody, one should seek out medical attention." Spontaneous discharge — i.e. discharge if you've never breastfed — is not a common sign of breast cancer. But it can be a sign of other health issues, including underactive thyroid, kidney disease, or pituitary disorders — problems you definitely want a doctor's assistance dealing with. So don't be shy about talking with your doctor — they're here to help. Even when it comes to nip ish.
This post was originally published on November 6, 2014. It was updated on August 13, 2019.