Breastfeeding provides a host of benefits to both the baby and mother, but it can also be painful and frustrating. At some point in their breastfeeding journey, most mothers experience a clogged milk duct, resulting in a painful lump in their breast and reduced milk flow. What happens if your clogged milk duct won’t go away or cannot be unblocked?
Clogged milk ducts are common in breastfeeding mothers and will usually clear within a day or two with frequent breastfeeding, but some helpful home remedies can help accelerate healing. However, if left untreated these clogged ducts could develop into mastitis, a painful inflammation and/or infection of the breast that gives you flu-like symptoms.
Keep reading to learn more about clogged milk duct causes, warning signs, and treatments.
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What happens if a milk duct can’t be unblocked?
A woman’s breast is made up of glandular tissue which contains ducts and lobules. Lobules produce milk and thin tubes called ducts carry milk from the lobules to the nipple.
Occasionally breast ducts can become clogged with residual milk resulting in the development of a firm, hard lump. This usually results from going too long between feedings or pumping sessions, inadequate drainage of each breast, poor latch, or wearing constrictive clothing around the breast area.
Here are some warning signs that signal you may be experiencing a clogged milk duct:
- An area of your breast may feel hard and tender.
- Your breast may be warm to the touch.
- The affected breast may be red or have red blotches.
- Your baby may become fussy when nursing because of reduced milk flow.
- You may be running a low-grade fever
Usually, a clogged duct will clear on its own within a few days. If it doesn’t, you will need to contact your doctor to see how best to resolve it and make sure you aren’t developing mastitis.
If you are experiencing the following symptoms, your clogged duct may have already developed into mastitis:
- Your entire breast is swollen and red as opposed to a localized area.
- You are experiencing flu-like symptoms (e.g. fever, body aches, chills).
- Pus or blood is visible in your milk.
- Your nipples appear cracked or infected.
- Your symptoms do not improve or worsen.
How long can a blocked milk duct last?
It’s very common to experience a clogged duct while breastfeeding. If the clogged duct does not clear up on its own, try some at-home remedies to see if you can get any relief.
A clogged milk duct usually resolves itself within 24-48 hours and usually requires no special treatments; however, the clogged area may still feel bruised and tender for days to weeks after the clog has resolved.
Left untreated, a clogged duct can turn into an infection called mastitis which can cause fever and other flu-like symptoms.
Can milk ducts unclog themselves?
Continued breastfeeding or pumping is one of the most effective methods for clearing a clog, so clogs can resolve themselves without active treatment, typically within 24-48 hours.
Though breastfeeding alone may be enough to relieve your clogged milk duct, it is a good idea to take additional care to prevent mastitis. Additional at-home treatments such as massage and applying moist heat can help loosen clogs and prevent infection from occurring.
Clogged milk ducts are common when weaning your little one because of stagnant milk and engorgement. In these instances, it is best to clear the clog using a pump or hand expression before continuing to suppress your milk supply in order to prevent mastitis.
What does it feel like when a clogged milk duct clears?
You’ll know when your clogged duct clears because your lump (if you were feeling one) will start to become smaller and any other symptoms will begin to lessen.
Though you may expect to feel immediate relief, the pain and inflammation caused by a clogged duct may take around a week to subside after it is cleared.
After clearing a clogged duct, it is common to express thickened, stringy, or grainy milk. Your milk supply may seem low initially, but continued feedings (or pumping sessions) will bring back your usual supply.
Can dehydration cause clogged milk ducts?
While dehydration is not one of the leading causes of clogged milk ducts, dehydration can contribute to clogs, because it changes the composition of breastmilk.
It’s even more important to drink an adequate amount of water while breastfeeding to not only help your body produce enough milk for your baby but also to help your breast adequately drain its supply. Not drinking enough water can contribute to clogged milk ducts.
If you’re not getting enough water while nursing, you may also symptoms of dehydration such as fever and diarrhea.
Will a clogged milk duct eventually dry up?
Since the female breast is made up of many milk glands and milk ducts, the obstruction of one milk duct should not cause your milk supply to dry up.
A clogged milk duct does usually result in a temporary decrease in your milk supply. Once the clog is cleared, continued nursing will reestablish your supply.
If you are weaning your baby, it is important to address clogged milk ducts. Infection can still occur even if you are trying to dry up your milk supply.
While it’s usually okay to give your clogged duct a few days to clear up on its own, it’s best to seek medical attention if it lingers much longer than that.
When should you call the doctor for a clogged milk duct?
Clogged milk ducts usually clear on their own within 1-2 days, however, if they don’t it’s important to keep an eye on them.
Mastitis is a type of inflammation of the breast that can quickly set up if your clogged duct is left untreated. If you are unable to clear up your mastitis or at least see improvement within 8-24 hours, you will need to go see your doctor as soon as possible.
Mastitis sometimes requires an antibiotic to clear up the infection and if left untreated, can lead to a breast abscess. However, if you are experiencing a fever or blood or pus in your breastmilk, you need to go see your doctor as those are signs an infection has developed.
Here are some signs of mastitis:
- Breast tenderness
- Breast swelling
- Thickening of breast tissue or breast lump
- Nipple discharge, white or blood-tinged
- Pain or burning sensation when breastfeeding
- Skin redness, usually in a wedge-shaped pattern
- A general feeling of being unwell
- Body aches, fever and/or chills
How long does it take for a clogged milk duct to turn into mastitis?
A clogged milk duct will usually clear on its own within a day or two. The longer the clog lasts, the more chance for inflammation and infection to set in.
Though there is no firm timeline for when clogged milk ducts turn into mastitis, mastitis can come on very quickly. Each case will differ depending on factors such as the severity of the clog, the mother’s milk flow, and the presence of bacteria.
It is recommended that clogged milk ducts be treated as quickly as possible to avoid complications associated with mastitis.
How do doctors treat clogged milk ducts?
Sometimes medical intervention is necessary for clogged milk ducts.
Doctors will be able to prescribe an antibiotic if needed and may suggest some ultrasound therapy to help break up the clog. Ultrasound therapy consists of the ultrasound transducer being gently rubbed along the clogged duct for 8-10 minutes at a time. Three treatments are usually needed to completely resolve the clogged duct. Your doctor will likely also recommend you keep trying to treat your blockage at home with warm compresses and lots of breastfeeding.
Massage and manual expression may be used instead of or alongside therapeutic ultrasound to clear a clogged milk duct. Though these techniques can be done at home, it is helpful to have guidance from a medical professional, especially if you have not had luck clearing the clog with at-home treatments.
If a doctor suspects you have an infection due to mastitis, they will prescribe an antibiotic.
How to unclog a blocked milk duct at home
As if a new parent doesn’t have enough to do or worry about, now you have to treat a clogged milk duct on top of all your other responsibilities. The silver lining of this situation is that you have full permission to rest and take it easy as much as you can.
Give yourself grace and lots of patience as clearing up a clogged duct can be an exercise in trial and error.
Rather than focusing on just one home remedy to try to clear it up, it more than likely will be a combination of multiple things that finally succeed in getting rid of it.
Use a warm compress or hot shower
Applying heat to the affected breast will help soften the clog, making it easier to clear.
Apply a warm compress over the affected area several times throughout the day. While in the shower, you can let the warm water run over the clogged duct as long as comfortable.
A warm compress can be placed on the area right before feeding to help encourage your milk let-down.
When you have the time, a hot shower is another great way to apply heat to your clogged milk duct. Massage and manual expression can be performed in the shower to help move milk through your milk ducts.
Another option is to fill a basin with warm water and lay your breast inside. It’s always a good idea to massage the affected area after applying heat as the heat seems to help release some of the clogged milk. Encourage your baby to eat after applying heat. You can also massage the lump while your child is eating.
Take care not to be too vigorous with your massage techniques as this can do more harm than good.
Breastfeed or pump frequently
I know you probably feel like all you do is breastfeed already but the more you can completely drain that breast the more success you’ll have at unclogging the duct.
If your baby refuses to nurse on that side or doesn’t completely empty the affected breast, you can pump to remove any extra milk.
One of the most important things for preventing and treating clogged milk ducts is to keep your breasts drained. Full or engorged breasts can exacerbate clogged ducts and lead to mastitis.
Due to low milk flow from the clogged duct, your baby may become fussy when nursing. Despite this, having your baby feed on the affected breast frequently will help clear your milk clog. Nursing your baby on the breast with the clogged duct first will also help clear the blockage.
Massage the breast
Massage can be very helpful when you are attempting to clear a clogged duct. Massage can be easily implemented with other methods such as during a hot shower or while pumping or nursing.
When attempting to clear a clogged duct with massage:
- Locate the clogged duct; it will feel like a hard lump in the breast and may appear red.
- Slowly and firmly massage the clogged duct in circular motions. Moist heat or a lubricant such as olive oil can be used to aid in massage.
- Press your thumb behind the clogged duct and move towards the nipple.
- Hand express milk, pump, or nurse to help clear the clog.
- Repeat as needed.
Increase your fluid intake
Drink water, water, and more water for the next day or so.
The increased water supply will help flush out the clogged duct.
Drinking water probably won’t solely cause the duct to clear but when used in conjunction with the other tools will definitely help.
Wear loose clothing
Wear loose, comfortable clothing and avoid anything that fits tightly around your breasts.
Either forgo your bra completely or wear a looser-fitting bra without an underwire.
Epsom salt bath
Epsom salt baths are especially helpful when trying to clear a milk duct clog due to a milk blister (also called a bleb). Milk blisters are white dots found on the nipple that arise when the skin grows over a milk duct opening.
Taking an Epsom salt bath or soaking the breast in an Epsom salt solution (2 teaspoons of Epsom salt per 1 cup of hot water) will help open the milk duct and heal the blister.
Gently exfoliating the areola with a washcloth and an Epsom salt solution can also help clear the blockage faster.
Breastfeeding/pumping on all fours (using gravity to help)
Breastfeeding on all fours allows you to make use of gravity as well as suction from your baby’s latch to clear your clogged milk duct.
To do this, lay your baby flat on a safe surface, and kneel over your baby on all fours to breastfeed.
This method can also easily be accomplished using a breast pump or manual expression.
Situating your baby so that their chin is pointing towards the clogged duct will improve the chances of clearing your clog.
This position allows your baby’s lower jaw, which is most effective at clearing milk, to work directly at the site of the clog. Additionally, frequently changing your baby’s position while nursing will allow them to drain all of your milk ducts more equally.
This may be especially helpful if your milk clog was due to poor positioning.
Using vibration on a clogged milk duct helps to break up the clog.
Vibration is very effective, especially when used alongside other treatment methods such as massage.
Some women swear by using an electric toothbrush to apply direct pressure and vibration to clogged milk ducts. Similarly, the LaVie Lactation Massager is a device designed to unclog milk ducts and improve the milk supply of nursing women.