Mastitis needs to be differentiated from a plugged or blocked duct, because the plugged or blocked duct does not need treatment with antibiotics, whereas mastitis often, but not always, does require treatment with antibiotics. A blocked duct presents as a painful, swollen, firm mass in the breast. The skin overlying the blocked duct is often quite red, similar to what happens during mastitis, but less intense. Mastitis is usually also associated with fever and more intense pain as well. However, it is not always easy to distinguish between a mild mastitis and a severe blocked duct. A blocked duct, can, apparently, go on to become mastitis. In France, physicians also recognize something they call lymphangite that is fever associated with skin which is hot and red, but there is no underlying painful mass. They do not believe this requires treatment with antibiotics. I have seen a few cases that fit this description in my practice, and indeed, the problem resolves without antibiotics. But then, often so does full blown mastitis.
As with almost all breastfeeding problems, a poor latch, and thus, poor draining of the breast sets up the situation where mastitis is more likely to occur.
Blocked ducts will almost always resolve spontaneously within 24 to 48 hours after onset, even without any treatment at all. During the time the block is present, the baby may be fussy when nursing on that side, as milk flow may be slower than usual. Blocked ducts can be made to resolve more quickly by:
- Continuing breastfeeding on the affected side.
- Draining the affected area better. One way of doing this is to position the baby so his chin "points" to the area of hardness. Thus if the blocked duct is in the outside, lower area of your breast (about 4 o'clock), the football hold would be best.
- Using breast compression while the baby is feeding, getting your hand around the blocked duct and using steady pressure.
- Applying heat to the affected area (with a heating pad or hot water bottle, but be careful not to injure your skin by using too much heat for too long a period of time).
- Trying to rest. (Not always easy, but take the baby to bed with you.)
If the blocked duct is associated with a small blister on the end of the nipple, you can open it with a sterile needle. Flame a sewing needle, let it cool off, and puncture the blister. No need to dig around. Just break the blister. Sometimes you can squeeze out a little toothpaste like material from the duct and the duct will immediately unblock. Or, put the baby to the breast and he may unblock it for you. Opening the blister has the added benefit of decreasing nipple pain, even if the blocked duct does not immediately resolve. Come to the clinic if you cannot do it yourself.
If a blocked duct has not settled within 48 hours (unusual), therapeutic ultrasound often works. This can be arranged at a neighbourhood physiotherapy office or sports medicine clinic. Many ultrasound therapists are not aware of this use for ultrasound. The dose is:
2 watts/cm2, continuous, for five minutes to the affected area, once daily for up to two doses.
If two treatments on two days have not worked, there is no point in continuing with ultrasound. Get the blocked duct re-evaluated at the clinic or your own physician. Usually, however, if ultrasound is going to work, one treatment is all that is needed. Ultrasound also seems to prevent recurrent blocked ducts which always occur in the same part of the breast. Lecithin, one capsule (1200 mg) 3 or 4 times a day also seems to prevent recurrent blocked ducts, at least in some mothers.