An abscess is a pocket containing pus that can occur in any part of the body. Breast abscess refers to an inflammation (swelling, redness) that results in such a collection of pus in the breast.
Bacteria most often cause breast abscesses. The most common types of bacteria are named Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus. Sometimes anaerobic bacteria (which grow without oxygen) can cause breast abscesses.
Breast abscesses usually occur in women of childbearing age. About 10% to 30% of all breast abscesses occur after pregnancy, when nursing mothers breastfeed newborns. Nursing mothers may first develop a condition called mastitis, or inflammation of the breast’s soft tissue. About 1 in 15 of these women can develop breast abscesses.
Blockage of nipple ducts because of scarring can also cause breast abscesses.
Breast abscesses are not inherited and cannot be passed from one person to another. They usually present no risk of infection to a newborn.
A painful, swollen, hot red mass on the breast is usual. Sometimes, drainage through the skin over the abscess or nipple duct opening may be present. Other symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting. Sometimes, the nipple may be inverted (pointing inward), and the abscess can look like other conditions, such as breast cancer or an infected cyst.
The health care provider makes a diagnosis by means of a physical examination. The health care provider may in some cases consult a general surgeon to cut, drain, and perform a biopsy of the area. In a biopsy, a small piece of breast tissue is taken for study under the microscope. Pus can be studied to identify the bacteria, which helps the health care provider select the right antibiotic for treatment.
Antibiotics are the first therapy used. If mastitis is found early, antibiotic therapy may cure the problem without surgery. However, most women with a breast abscess will need an incision (cutting) and drainage. Complications of incision and drainage include formation of a new abscess, scarring of ducts, and formation of fistulas. A fistula is a passage leading from the abscess to the outside skin.
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