Many of us experience itchy skin at certain times. And while we wouldn’t give a second thought to an itchy leg or arm, an itchy breast tends to give us pause.
Perhaps this is a side effect of heightened awareness around breast cancer (and breast cancer awareness is certainly a good thing). However, rest assured, the question "why do my breasts itch" often has a very straightforward answer. Here are some of the causes of itchy breasts or itching nipples:
1. Skin Irritations & Infections
Just like the rest of your body, itches generally originate with skin irritation. Sometimes, an itch can be mild and minor, and some can be the result of an allergic reaction or a dermatological condition. The good news is that there are usually skincare or over-the-counter treatments that can alleviate those kinds of itch symptoms.
Dry skin is a common affliction, especially in colder months, when moisture can be stripped from our skin more easily. It can result in dry, flakey and itchy skin. Often you’ll notice itches most at bedtime, as the body starts to relax.
A body moisturizer will ensure your skin stays hydrated. If you suffer from dry skin, it may also be sensitive, so you might want to look for scent-free formulations that don’t contain irritants. You might also want to stay away from rough or gritty exfoliators and opt for a gentle body brush instead.
Many dietary and environmental triggers can cause allergic reactions. But odds are if your breasts in particular are experiencing a topical allergic reaction, it is connected with something that’s coming into contact with this area.
That could be skincare products or even laundry detergent or softener. Tracking down allergens is often a tedious process of elimination, so focus first on what might have changed recently: Did you switch detergent or fabric softener? If so, switch back. You can also try switching to hypo-allergenic and scent-free formulations if you’re prone to allergic reactions.
Heat rash isn’t just for babies. It can happen to adults in hot, humid weather too. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Heat rash develops when blocked pores (sweat ducts) trap perspiration under your skin. Symptoms range from superficial blisters to deep, red lumps. Some forms of heat rash feel prickly or intensely itchy.”
Heat rash can affect your breasts. The good news is that it usually subsides quickly once you cool down and remove moisture.
Moisture can sometimes get trapped between or under breasts, making it the perfect environment for a yeast infection (that’s right, it’s not just a vaginal infection). To treat a yeast infection, you’ll need to keep the area clean and dry and use a topical anti-yeast medication until it clears up.
Atopic dermatitis (eczema) is a condition that makes your skin red and itchy. It often affects women on the upper chest area. For some people, it flares periodically and then clears up for a time, even for several years.
If you suffer from eczema or painful flare-ups, it is worth going to see your doctor, as there is a range of treatment options you can explore, depending on the severity of your case.
Psoriasis is a skin disease that causes red, itchy scaly patches. It does not usually affect the breasts, but in some cases (inverse psoriasis) areas where there’s a fold of skin can be affected. This can include the area beneath the breasts. Like eczema, treatment of psoriasis is worth discussing with your doctor.
2. Your Bra
Yep, your bra can irritate you! Odds are you won’t be left guessing about this one, because you’ll probably experience discomfort. But just in case you’re wondering...
An ill-fitting bra, especially too tight, can squeeze and compress your breasts. You might notice red marks around the band or underwire. But you might also just feel too constricted and this may cause the sensitive skin of the breasts to react.
Unless you’re wearing the completely wrong fit, this is more likely to happen with sports bras. That’s because they’re designed to really “strap you in” for high impact activities. And this is one of the reasons why it’s not recommended to wear a sports bra all the time.
To learn more about bra fitting, click here.
Bras need to be washed often. And, considering a lot of bras require gentle hand-washing it’s not unusual to drag out the time between washes as long as possible. Trust us, you’re not the only one.
Most lingerie brands will say that regular, gentle, handwashing is a good way to prolong the life of a bra. But it’s also good to prevent bacteria build-up that can cause skin irritations, especially in summer months when you perspire more.
One solution is to choose a bra (uhm, hello Knix!) that can be machine washed. That way, you have no excuse not to keep your bras fresh and clean.
Breast & Bodily Changes & Development
If your breasts are itchy when you’re going through other bodily changes, it’s not a leap to connect the dots. The sensitive skin of the breasts can react to changes in weight gain, and hormonal changes, including puberty and menopause. You may already experience breast tenderness as a symptom of PMS, so don’t be surprised if your skin feels “pulled” or “itchy” too.
During pregnancy, your breasts may double or triple in size. Stretch marks may occur and these can sometimes be itchy. To avoid this, the treatment is the same as skin irritation; plenty of moisturizer. Look for natural ingredients with soothing properties.
Breastfeeding can cause itching, sensitive and irritated nipples, which can be treated with lanolin cream.
Any breast surgery (reduction, reconstruction or augmentation) will result in scarring that will probably cause itching while it’s healing. This usually passes as the breast tissue and skin recovers.
Medical Reasons, Including Breast Cancer
According to the Mayo Clinic “Mastitis is an inflammation of breast tissue that sometimes involves an infection. The inflammation results in breast pain, swelling, warmth and redness. You might also have fever and chills. Mastitis most commonly affects women who are breast-feeding (lactation mastitis).”
Mastitis is most often associated with breastfeeding, but it can occur in women who are not nursing. For women who are nursing, a meeting with a lactation consultant will cover some of the best practices for avoiding mastitis.
Mastitis does require a visit to your doctor. It’s likely she will prescribe antibiotics and/or pain relievers. If you are nursing, you should be able to continue. But again, your doctor will guide you on your treatment.
Sometimes, a noncancerous tumor in the breast duct can cause an itchy, crusted nipple. While these tumors are not cancerous, it’s worth checking in with your doctor to rule out anything serious and decide on appropriate next steps. Learn more about benign breast conditions from Susan G. Komen.
Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC)
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and very aggressive disease in which cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breast.”
Odds are your itchy breast is much more likely to be dry skin than IBC. Inflammatory breast cancer is usually accompanied by other symptoms (read more on the National Cancer Institute). And even then, those symptoms might point to a different cause or condition.
Paget Disease of the Breast (A Rare Form of Breast Cancer)
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Paget disease of the breast (also known as Paget disease of the nipple and mammary Paget disease) is a rare form of breast cancer involving the skin of the nipple and, usually, the darker circle of skin around it, which is called the areola.”
Symptoms of this rare form of breast cancer include itchy breasts, especially itching, tingling, or redness in the nipple and/or areola. These symptoms are sometimes mistaken for skin irritations, as it is a very rare form of cancer. As with any cancer, treatment will be decided with your healthcare provider, depending on your cancer stage, health and other factors.
If you’re undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer you may experience itchy breasts. This is because radiation kills skin cells and causes dryness, and peeling and itchy skin.
To provide some relief, massage the breast area with an ice cube. Wear natural loose-fitting fabrics and drink plenty of fluids. Your doctor may also prescribe a corticosteroid cream.
When to Seek Medical Advice
Always see your doctor if you’re excessively worried or experiencing prolonged discomfort. You should feel comfortable seeing your doctor even if the verdict is “everything is fine”.
However, there are some signs and symptoms of itchy breasts that you definitely should not ignore. Please seek medical advice if you experience:
- Prolonged itching on nipples or breasts that lasts more than a week, and does not respond to moisturizers or home treatments.
- Intensely itchy breasts that wakes you from sleep or drives you to distraction.
- An itchy nipple or areola area, especially if the skin is also flaky.
- Breast tenderness, pain, or swelling alongside the itching.
- Any rashes on, between, or under the breasts.
In general, breast health is something all women should be aware of. Make sure your doctor is examining your breasts at your regular check-ups and be familiar with your own breast health. When you reach the appropriate age, go for recommended mammograms.