Breast Swelling

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Introduction

What is breast swelling?

Breast swelling and tenderness is common for almost all women in the second half of their menstrual cycle. Breast swelling and tenderness in the premenstrual portion of your cycle can be mild to severe.

Milk ducts in the breast are enlarged by the increase of estrogen production at certain points during your menstrual cycle. Estrogen production generally reaches its peak just prior to the middle of your cycle. Your breast lobules, the milk glands, are stimulated to grow by an increase of progesterone, which reaches its peak around day 21 of a 28-day cycle.

During this time, you may have intermittent or persistent breast fullness along with tenderness and pain. The feel of your breast tissue may also change. Some women may feel that their breasts are dense and rough to the touch.

During pregnancy, breast swelling and tenderness may be more pronounced. Women who take birth control pills report that their symptoms are milder. Other conditions that can cause breast swelling include benign (noncancerous) breast conditions, such as papillomas and atypical hyperplasia (abnormal proliferation of cells), duct ectasia (widening of the milk ducts), fat necrosis (damage to the fatty tissue of the breast), fibrocystic changes, and breast infection (mastitis or abscess). Breast swelling rarely occurs with a more serious condition such as breast cancer.

Seek prompt medical care if your breast swelling and tenderness is persistent or causes you concern, or if it is accompanied by nipple discharge or by new or changing lumps in either of your breasts.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with breast swelling?

Breast swelling and tenderness may signify a noncancerous breast condition. Other symptoms will vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Breast swelling symptoms that may occur along with benign processes

Breast swelling may accompany the presence of benign breast tumors, such as papillomas and fibroadenomas, along with other symptoms including:

  • Breast deformity or misshapen breast
  • Breast lump
  • Breast pain
  • Nipple discharge or tenderness

Breast swelling symptoms that may occur along with breast infection

Breast swelling and tenderness may accompany the presence of breast infection (mastitis or abscess) along with other symptoms including:

  • Breast lump
  • Breast pain
  • Fever
  • Rash or sore on the breast or nipple
  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Tenderness

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, breast swelling and tenderness may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have breast swelling and tenderness along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
Causes

What causes breast swelling?

Breast swelling and tenderness is common for almost all women in the second half of their menstrual cycle. Breast swelling and tenderness in the premenstrual portion of your cycle can be mild to severe.

Milk ducts in the breast are enlarged by the increase of estrogen production during the menstrual cycle. Estrogen production generally reaches its peak just prior to the middle of your cycle. During this time, you may have intermittent or persistent breast fullness along with tenderness and pain. During pregnancy, breast swelling and tenderness may be quite pronounced.

Everyday causes of breast swelling

Everyday causes of breast swelling include:

  • Estrogen medications such as birth control pills
  • Menstrual cycle
  • Pregnancy

Benign causes of breast swelling

Breast swelling can also be caused by benign conditions including:

  • Abscess
  • Benign tumors such as intraductal papillomas and fibroadenomas
  • Duct ectasia (widening of the milk ducts)
  • Fat necrosis (damage to the fatty tissue of the breast)
  • Fibrocystic changes
  • Mastitis

Serious or life-threatening causes of breast swelling

In some cases, breast swelling and tenderness may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition. Potentially serious causes of breast swelling include:

  • Breast cancer
  • Widespread infection

Questions for diagnosing the cause of breast swelling

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your breast swelling including:

  • Are you pregnant?
  • When was your last menstrual period?
  • Does the breast swelling happen with every menstrual cycle?
  • Have you felt any lumps in your breasts?
  • Have you had any discharge from your nipples?
  • Are there any other associated symptoms?

What are the potential complications of breast swelling?

You may be able to decrease breast swelling and tenderness by lowering the fats in your diet, avoiding caffeine, trimming your salt intake a couple of weeks before your period starts, and maintaining a daily exercise schedule. However, if your breast swelling and tenderness is so severe that it restricts your ability to carry out your daily activities, seek the help of a health care professional.

Once the underlying cause of your breast swelling is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Absenteeism from work or school
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Inability to participate normally in activities
  • Inability to perform daily tasks
  • Severe discomfort or pain
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 25
  1. Breast – premenstrual tenderness and swelling. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003153.htm
  2. For women facing a breast biopsy. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/understandingyourdiagnosis/examsandtestdescriptions/forwomenfacingab...
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
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