20 Things You Need to Know About Your Nipples
Get to know your nipples
We all have nipples. But unless you’re breastfeeding, having sex, considering a nipple piercing, or the temperature suddenly drops (hello, headlights!), you probably don’t have much of a reason to think about these perky points on a regular basis.
Yet there’s a lot more to your nipples than you probably realize. While your breasts as a whole score most of the attention—they get their own examination by your doctor during your annual ob-gyn visit, for example, and they’re supported by a sport bras so they don't bounce around too much when you work out—your nipples remain out of the spotlight.
That’s a shame, because nipples are capable of some pretty incredible feats. Your nipples help deliver milk to a newborn, are sexually sensitive enough to increase your satisfaction during sex and even give you an orgasm (yes, really!), and can tip you off to clues to potentially serious health issues, such as certain types of breast cancer.
Learning about how much variation there is in the way they look, how they work, and what’s normal vs. what signs are red flags can teach you a lot about your overall health. Here’s what every woman should know about her nipples.
Your nipples don’t necessarily match
Just as your breasts probably aren’t the exact same size and shape—one is fuller, perhaps, the other closer to your armpit—neither are your nipples. “Maybe one nipple is a little bigger, or higher, or lower, and that’s totally normal,” says Nikita Shah, MD, a breast-cancer specialist at Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center.
Still, it’s smart to keep an eye on these variations when you notice them, says Dr. Shah. “Taking a good look at yourself in the mirror, with your hands on your hips, will give you a good idea what’s normal and what’s not for each nipple and how they’re different from each other.”
If you think something’s changed—one nipple looks more puckered than it used to, for example, or one of the many pimple-like ducts on your areola seems inflamed or swollen—loop in your doctor.
“If a change happens to both nipples at the same time, that can be comforting,” says Rebecca Tung, MD, director of dermatology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “If it’s just one, it’s more concerning. It could be a sign of cancer or an infection or another problem, and it’s a good idea to get it checked out.”
Nipples can be outies—or innies
Most nipples protrude outward, coming to a point at the tip of each breast. But 10% to 20% of women have nipples that are either perfectly flat or inverted, meaning they point inward and retract into breast tissue, forming a crease or indentation where the point would be.
If you’ve always had inverted nipples, as they're called, the condition is nothing to worry about, says Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, Health’s medical editor. Women with "innies" can still breastfeed and enjoy the same nipple super-sensitivity as all women. But if you notice that one of your nipples has recently flattened or retracted inward, see a doctor. It could be no big deal, yet it could also indicate breast cancer or another health condition a doctor should know about.
Nipple size and color can vary
They can be as small as a dime or as wide as a teacup saucer. And while it's normal to wonder how your nipples size up in comparison to other women, the truth is, says Dr. Rajapaksa, “nipples come in all sizes, and they’re all normal.”
The areola—the darker, typically raised circle around the nipple—can have a diameter of less than an inch to several inches across. The nipple itself can stick out prominently or look kind of puffed up, or it blend in more smoothly with the surrounding tissue of the areole. Nipple color varies widely as well—from light pink to dark brown and every shade between.
The bumps on the areolas have a purpose
The small bumps on the areolas—the pigmented area that surrounds the actual nipple itself—are called Montgomery tubercles, and they secrete oil that helps lubricate the nipple during pregnancy and lactation. That oil isn’t just to prevent dryness and chafing. It has antibacterial properties, says Dr. Rajapaksa, and its scent may even help attract infants to the breast (another one of Mother Nature’s ways of making sure babies get nourishment).
RELATED: What Pregnancy Does to Your Health
Some women have just a few Montgomery tubercles while others may have dozens—and their size and appearance may change during pregnancy and breastfeeding. But as long as they aren’t painful or one or more is not suddenly enlarged, it’s best to leave these bumps alone. A swollen tubercle could indicate a blockage or infection. Get it checked out by your doctor, who might want to prescribe antibiotics.
Nipple hair is totally natural
The areolas also contain hair follicles, and it’s estimated that at least 30% of women have hair on their nipples. There’s nothing wrong with having hair there (or noticing extra growth during or after pregnancy)—but if it bothers you, it can be removed via tweezing or laser hair removal, says Dr. Tung. Avoid shaving and waxing, which can cause cuts, burns, irritation, or ingrown hairs.
Worried you have more hair than you should on your nipples? Your primary care physician or gynecologist can let you know if anything looks out of the ordinary. Excess hair growth could be a sign of a hormonal imbalance like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). And if you have dark hairs sprouting from the skin of the breast just outside the nipple, don't worry, that's totally normal too.
Pierced nipples can be health risks
You may have heard that nipple piercings make foreplay more exciting, or you might just like how celebs look flaunting the nipple ring trend. But before you take the plunge yourself, it’s important to know the risks.
Nipple piercings increase the odds of a painful breast infection tenfold, according to a 2010 University of Iowa study. (In that same study, smoking, obesity, and diabetes also raised breast infection risk.) There’s also a possibility they could damage the ducts that produce milk for breastfeeding, trigger an allergic reaction and set you up for an itchy, ugly rash or swelling, or put you at risk for disease transmission if the instruments used during your piercing aren’t disinfected properly.
Discharge is (usually) normal
It's not unheard of, or necessarily anything to worry about, if your nipples occasionally leak a clear or whitish fluid. This discharge sounds weird, but this can be triggered when your nipples are stimulated by exercise, sexual activity, or being rubbed or chafed.
It’s also totally normal if they leak while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, even if your baby’s not actively trying to nurse—though it can be quite a surprise when a new mom realizes her blouse or T-shirt is suddenly wet with milk stains.
But if you notice the leaking for more than a week, or if your breasts leak without any stimulation, if only one nipple has discharge, or if you notice any blood, call your doctor. The fluid could be the sign of a harmless blockage or cyst, an infection, or a hormonal imbalance, says Dr. Shah.
Some people have three nipples . . . or more
Two breasts means two nipples, right? Not always. In rare cases, a preson can have a third nipple or even several additional, smaller nipples—sometimes mistaken for moles—known as accessory or supernumerary nipples. “These can occur anywhere along the vertical lines where your breasts are, from head to toe,” says Dr. Shah.
Where do these extra headlights come from? Early in pregnancy, a growing fetus develops something called a "mammary ridge" across the chest. Later on, this mammary ridge regresses and becomes two nipples—except in rare cases, when the ridge doesn't fully regress and an extra nipple—or two, or three—remain.
Accessory nipples may be noticed at birth, or they may get larger and be diagnosed around puberty. They’re usually harmless, but in rare cases they can cause discomfort, and there’s been at least one case of an accessory nipple developing cancer.
RELATED: 29 Breast Cancer Myths Busted
Pregnancy can change their color
When a woman becomes pregnant, it’s common for her nipples and areolas to turn a darker color at some point during the three trimesters, says Dr. Tung. Blame hormonal fluctuations, which can affect the amount of melanin the body produces, which alters pigment.
Pregnancy doesn't just influence nipple color. Carrying a baby causes breasts to change size, and that means nipples may develop more prominent bumps or sport more hair on and around the areolas. A lot of these shifts are temporary, says Dr. Tung, although not every woman’s breasts bounce back completely from pregnancy-induced changes.
Breast cancer survivors don't have to part with their nipples
Getting a breast cancer diagnosis and undergoing a mastectomy doesn’t necessarily mean losing your entire breast, and therefore the nipple as well. Most women in this situation can opt for a nipple-sparing surgery that leaves the natural nipple in place, says Dr. Shah, so a new, cancer-free breast can be reconstructed around it. (Mastectomy patients do often lose sensation in the affected nipple, she adds, even if it’s not surgically removed.)
Nipple-sparing mastectomies seem to be just as safe as traditional mastectomies that remove the whole breast: A recent study from Massachusetts General Hospital found no difference in cancer recurrence between the two types of surgeries.
Breast cancer survivors also have the option of nipple tattoos
Even if a breast-cancer patient cannot have a nipple-sparing mastectomy because of the nature the cancer and the stage it's in, she may have the option to get a nipple image tattooed onto the end of her breast after reconstruction. During this process, a plastic surgeon designs a patient’s tattoo to match her other nipple, or to match photos of her breasts before surgery.
“The technology is very advanced, and these tattoos look very real,” says Dr. Shah. “It’s comforting for women to know that this is an option, that they can look relatively normal again after surgery.”
Nipple orgasms are real
They're soft, sensitive, and loaded with nerve endings, so no wonder nipple stimulation is often part of a couple's sexual repertoire. And while not every woman enjoys having her headlights touched and kissed, some women feel such pleasure during nipple play that they are actually able to orgasm from nipple stimulation alone. This makes sense considering that nipple stimulation and genital stimulation activate the same part of the brain.
While there's no accurate estimate of how many women can have a big O just from above-the-belt touching, sex experts and real women vouch that it is a real thing.
RELATED: 12 Secrets to Better Orgasms
Nipple stimulation can induce labor
Breast stimulation doesn't just trigger a hormone release that amps up sexual pleasure. It also increases the production of the hormone oxytocin, which can bring on contractions in pregnant women. This could be why studies have shown that some women go into labor after their nipples are touched or played with.
In one 2015 study by Turkish researchers, pregnant women whose nipples were stimulated just before going into labor had shorter deliveries, with fewer complications, than those in a control group. And none of the women in the nipple-stimulation group needed an emergency C-section, compared to 8.5% of women in the control group.
Nursing can cause nipple pain
Breastfeeding is more than just about nourishment—it's a special bonding experience for mom and baby. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or comes naturally. Plenty of moms (including these celebs) have spoken out about the trials and tribulations of nursing, and Hills alum Whitney Port recently admitted that breastfeeding her son felt “as though someone is slicing my nipples with glass.”
Experts say that nipple tenderness during the first few weeks of breastfeeding is normal, but serious pain should not be. New moms should talk to a lactation consultant if they’re having trouble nursing, to ensure that they’re getting the help (and their babies are getting the nutrients) they need.
Nipples are an important part of self-exams
If you give yourself monthly breast self-exams—a practice that many doctors recommend, so you know what’s normal and what may be a suspicious change in your breast tissue—your nipples are the right place to start. “I tell patients to start at the nipple, to look and feel for any changes, and to also examine behind the nipple,” says Dr. Shah. “From there, move your hands around and outward in a circular motion until you’ve covered all the breast tissue.”
Breast self-exams also involve looking at your breasts in the mirror both with your hands at your sides and your arms raised. As you scan your breasts searching for any skin changes or bumps under the skin, don't forget to give your nipples a good once-over as well.
Dry, flaky nipple skin is common
Because nipples contain small oil glands that help lubricate the skin and are generally protected from the elements by a bra and blouse at minimum, they don't rack up the kind of wear and tear other more exposed body parts to. At the same time, the more they're touched and stimulated, the more likely you'll find yourself dealing with skin issues.
The skin on and around the nipples can be very vulnerable to irritation, thanks to breastfeeding, working out, and dry, harsh air. “It’s very common to get dry skin in this area, especially in the wintertime or if you haven’t been moisturizing or using harsh soaps,” Dr. Tung says. “Working out in a super-tight sports bras can also cause irritation and dermatitis.”
As long as there’s no sign of infection or more serious condition, Dr. Tung recommends patients treat dry and irritated nipples with an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. And just like you do with chapped lips, consider dabbing on some petroleum jelly or lip balm if your nipples tend to chafe when you run or ht the gym.
Dry skin could also be a sign of breast cancer
If dry, flaky, or itchy skin on the nipple doesn’t go away with basic treatment, however—or if it’s affecting just one breast—it may not be a skin condition after all. “What’s mistaken for eczema or dermatitis can actually be something called Paget’s disease of the breast, which is associated with underlying breast cancer,” says Dr. Tung.
Most people with Paget’s disease of the breast have one or more tumors inside their breast, so it’s important to see a doctor if you’ve experienced any unexplained changes on the surface of your nipples. “This type of cancer usually occurs in women 50 and older,” says Dr. Tung, “but it can affect both men and women of all ages.” (Don't forget, men have nipples—and breasts—just like women do, and they too are vulnerable to breast cancer, though it's much less likely.)
Nipple inflammation is a red flag
If one or both of your nipples become red, painful, and hot to the touch, see a doctor right away. These are signs of inflammation, and could signal an infection called mastitis, which is often caused by a blockage plugging a milk gland. “This is very frequently seen in women who are breastfeeding, and it’s easily treatable with antibiotics,” says Dr. Tung.
Those symptoms could also be signs of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), an aggressive form of cancer that can be easily misdiagnosed because it rarely presents with the traditional breast lump that is the hallmark sign of so many other types of breast cancer. In IBC, the skin on the nipple or breast can also becomes pitted and thick like an orange peel—a symptom known as peau d’orange.
Not all changes indicate breast cancer
Let's say you found a lump, or you noticed a strange mark or puckering of the skin on and around your nipple. While your first instinct might be to panic, take a deep breath instead. Fortunately, most lumps and lesions on the nipple do not indicate cancer.
There's one particular pigmented growth that scares many women into thinking they must have cancer, but don't let it if you detect it on your nipple. “One very common type of brown or tan growth—called a seborrheic keratosis—is harmless and can be easily removed with an in-office procedure,” says Dr. Tung.
Another type of benign growth that can appear on the nipples (or elsewhere on the body) is an angioma—a bright red spot made up of tiny blood vessels. “It’s very common to develop spots like these on the nipples, especially as you get older,” says Dr. Tung, “but they’re usually not cause for alarm.”
Nipple erections happen for this reason
Everyone knows nipples get stiff and stick out when a person is turned on, when it’s cold, or when fabric—like a sports bra—rubs against them in a certain way. But why do nipple hard-ons, as they're called, happen in the first place? According to a 2016 study in Nature Neuroscience, it has to do with a specific type of specialized nerve cells concentrated in the area.
Those nerve cells are part of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary movements, the study authors say. By controlling the erectile muscles in breast tissue (and goosebumps on other parts of your anatomy), they can help the body respond to outside stimuli, which in turn lets your system regulate things like internal temperature, sexual arousal, and the fight-or-flight response to threats.
If your nipples are the super sensitive kind that become erect anytime a breeze blows, and these nipple erections bother you, you can always try to cover up your perked-up pair with a lined or padded bra. But outside of that, erect nipples that peek out of your T-shirt at inappropriate times are just one of those things most women laugh off and learn to live with.