Common breast conditions

Breast lumps, cysts, mastitis, painful breasts can occur in many women. It is helpful to know what causes these changes, when they occur and what treatments are available, particularly how to relieve breast pain.

Common breast conditions

Fibroadenomas (fibrous lump)

These are a common cause of breast lumps. Each lump consists of glands and fibrous tissue that are benign (non-cancerous). The lump is not painful. It feels quite smooth and firm and is mobile in the breast tissue (often called a breast mouse).

Fibroadenomas occur more frequently in women between the ages of 15-30. They may occur occasionally in older women. Up to 1 in 6 women may have one at some stage.

Most fibroadenomas are small, however as with all lumps, they should be further assessed by your doctor. Some lumps may require surgical removal.

Breast cysts

A breast cyst is a fluid filled sac in the breast tissue. Cysts can vary in size with the menstrual cycle and may disappear spontaneously. They can be painful.

These commonly occur between the ages of 35-50, but they may occasionally occur in younger women.

Although harmless, they should be checked by your doctor. Breast ultrasound can be used to assess whether a lump is cystic (fluid) or solid. Your doctor may aspirate (remove using suction) the fluid from large cysts using a syringe with a fine needle. The presence of fluid in the lump generally confirms the diagnosis, and following aspiration the cyst will usually disappear. Sometimes cysts continue to recur and surgical removal may be necessary.

Benign fibrocystic disease

Some women have a combination of cysts and thickened breast tissue referred to as benign fibrocystic disease. This lump may vary with the menstrual cycle in some women who are sensitive to hormonal changes in breast tissue.

The likelihood of this combination occurring increases with age and is a common cause of non-cancerous lumps.

These problems often disappear after menopause, but may persist if you take hormone replacement therapy.


Nipple discharge

While you're pregnant or breastfeeding it is quite normal for discharge or milk to leak from your nipples – this will gradually cease after you have weaned your baby.

Sometimes discharge from the nipple can be blood stained, watery or contains pus (there are a number of different causes for this). 

Nipple discharge can be caused by:

  • pregnancy
  • breastfeeding
  • duct papilloma ­– harmless wart like growth found in the duct of the breast
  • abscess

You should see your doctor if:

  • a discharge occurs when you are not pregnant or breastfeeding
  • the discharge is watery or blood stained
  • there is any inversion (pulling in) of the nipple and this is not usual for you

Although often caused by harmless conditions, any new symptoms may indicate a breast cancer.

Inflammation of the breast (mastitis)

This condition causes redness, heat, lumpiness and pain in the affected breast tissue. Most commonly this is caused by an infection during breastfeeding, but it can occur at other times due to blockage and inflammation of the breast duct with an infection.

Treatment may include:

  • antibiotics for the bacterial infection
  • anti-inflammatory medication to relieve the pain
  • continuing to breastfeed or express milk as draining the breast helps clear the blocked ducts

Treatment with antibiotics needs to be started immediately to prevent an abscess forming. If an abscess forms, a small surgical procedure is required to drain it.

Painful breasts (mastalgia)

Often painful breasts (mastalgia) is linked to the menstrual cycle, with your breasts becoming tender or painful just before your period. This is a normal occurrence caused by fluid retention because of hormonal activity at that time.

It is wise to have it checked by your doctor who may be able to suggest ways to manage the discomfort.

Both the contraceptive pill and hormone replacement therapy can cause breast discomfort in some women. Sometimes a change in the prescribed type of hormone may be necessary. Ask your doctor for more information.

Hot water bottle

How to relieve breast tenderness or pain

  • A warm shower, bath or hot water bottle to the breast
  • An ice pack over the breast may be more effective than warmth
  • A comfortable, supportive bra such as a sports bra
  • Going without a bra may be more comfortable
  • Reduce your intake of caffeine including coffee, tea, cola and chocolate
  • Reduce your intake of salt and fat
  • Although there is no scientific evidence to support that they are effective, you can try the following combination of supplements:
    • vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
    • vitamin B1 (thiamine) and
    • evening primrose oil – consult an accredited naturopath for doses
  • Relaxation

If none of the above relieves your breast discomfort, seek advice from your doctor.

When to see your doctor

If you have any of the breast problems listed above, a visit to your doctor is recommended.

You should see your doctor about:

  • new lumps
  • new lumpiness
  • changes in the shape of your breast
  • changes in the colour of your breast
  • changes in the nipple
  • discharge from your nipple
  • any persistent breast pain

Last updated 05 June 2018 — Last reviewed 30 January 2014

** Currently under review **

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at January 2014.

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