11 Reasons for Itchy Nipples and Breasts

These health issues can leave you scratching your chest—plus how to end the itchiness.

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Photo: ilbusca/Getty Images

Dry, flaky nipples. Irritated underboob. Breast skin so itchy you spend half the workday secretly reaching into your blouse to scratch your chest. If you've ever had to deal with these annoying chronic itches, you know how uncomfortable things can be behind your bra. But how common is it to have itchy nipples and breasts, and what's actually bringing on your need to scratch? (Apart from annoying underwire, that is.)

It's a complaint many patients bring during office visits, said Christine Greves, MD, ob-gyn at the center for obstetrics and gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida. "It's not the number one concern I hear, but it definitely comes up."

Lots of factors come into play making your breasts itch, from issues like dry skin to serious conditions such as certain types of breast cancer. But even when it's not life-threatening, all that scratching can really cut into your quality of life. Here, experts outline some possible causes, then explain easy ways to get rid of this bothersome breast issue.

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Inflammatory Skin Conditions

When skin is involved in an immune system response, it can lead to a lot of irritation and itching. People with eczema commonly develop dry, itchy patches of skin in the folds of their arms or knees. Psoriasis, on the other hand, causes raised red and white plaques on the scalp, elbows, and knees. Yet both inflammatory skin conditions can cause itchiness on the nipples and the entire breast as well, said Shari Lipner, MD, a dermatologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Whether your itchy nipples are due to one of these skin conditions or your skin is naturally on the dry side, you can combat the itch by keeping baths and showers short and using lukewarm water, since the hot kind dries out skin even more. "Use a very gentle soap and pat yourself with a towel instead of completely drying off," suggested Dr. Lipner. "Follow up with a good moisturizer too. Thick creams or ointments work better than lotions."

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Soaps or Detergents

Chemicals added to cleansing products that directly touch your skin can trigger a skin reaction called irritant contact dermatitis. Since your breasts probably get a good soaping up in the shower every day and are almost always covered by fabric treated with laundry detergent, no wonder they're prone to this itchy condition. "Tons of people will get a rash or red, flaky, itchy skin if they're exposed to an irritant soap or detergent in large enough quantities," explained Dr. Lipner.

If a cleansing product is the cause of your itch, you'll probably feel scratchy on other parts of the body as well. To know for sure, switch to an additive-free product and see if the itch goes away. If it does, always opt for hypoallergenic detergents and fragrance-free soaps so it's unlikely to return.

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Sports Bra Irritation

You don't have to be a hard-core athlete to leave the gym and realize your nipples are inflamed, rashy, and itchy. It's not just your nipples that end up itching; your sports bra can leave the skin of your breasts really itchy as well. "In this case, the skin will have a rash that looks more linear, rather than red, scaly patches," said Dr. Lipner.

Try a sports bra that is supportive but isn't too tight, which will give your nipples and breasts some breathing room. Less restrictive workout tops in general are a good idea as well. Or try this anti-itch trick: apply a thin layer of Vaseline or Aquaphor to the itchy area before working out.

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Yeast Infections

Sweat is mostly made of salt, which can dry out the skin if it lingers. After the skin dries, the itch strikes. Sweat left behind on the skin under your breasts can also promote itching by attracting yeast and leading to a skin yeast infection, said Marie Jhin, MD, a dermatologist based in San Francisco and San Carlos, California.

To keep moisture from collecting under the skin, wear breathable clothing and rinse off with soap after a sweat session.

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Pregnancy

During pregnancy hormonal changes and weight gain cause breasts and nipples to get larger. It sounds strange, but the stretching of skin in these areas can result in itchiness, said Dr. Jhin.

"When I was pregnant, it was so itchy," Dr. Greves told Health. To stop the urge to scratch, Greves suggested applying a hypoallergenic lotion to your chest post-shower. The good news about this kind of nipple and breast itch is that at least it's only temporary. After delivery and breastfeeding, your boobs should return to their original size (or closer to it).

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Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can also can trigger itching, especially around the nipple. Residue from breast milk can cause irritation, as can the constant sucking (or biting) of a hungry infant.

Be sure to see your healthcare provider if the itch is accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain, swelling, chills, or fever. These are all signs of mastitis, an inflammation or infection of breast tissue, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mastitis is a common issue for nursing moms. The symptoms can also signal the yeast infection thrush, said Sejal Shah, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist.

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Your Period or Menopause

You've probably noticed that your breasts feel more tender during the week before your period and/or during your period itself. Like so many other menstruation-related issues, pin the blame on hormone changes. "When hormones fluctuate, the breasts tend to get more sensitive," said Dr. Greves. "That means they may be more prone to irritation and itching." Hormone swings during the menopause transition, which is the lead up to your last period, can have the same itchy effect.

Another reason for PMS itching has to do with the fact that breasts enlarge slightly at this time in your cycle. As the skin of your breasts and nipples stretch, you feel the urge to scratch, said Dr. Shah.

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Radiation Treatments

Radiation therapy, which uses high-powered waves to treat cancer, has many side effects. Itching is one of them, according to the American Cancer Society. Here's what happens: radiation can change the texture of the area of skin that's absorbing it. This increases skin sensitivity and promotes itching in the targeted area.

If you're undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer, that means your breasts and nipples can start itching, even when treatment sessions are over, Dr. Jhin said. Topical medications like corticosteroid creams can help to drive down discomfort. You should also talk to your healthcare provider as well. A 2017 systemic review and meta-analysis in Anticancer Research found that use of corticosteroids in individuals with breast cancer undergoing radiation reduced itching and improved quality of life.

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Breast Surgery

Whether you've just undergone a breast augmentation or breast reduction surgery or surgery to remove breast cancer, your chest is likely to come in contact with moisture-trapping materials like tape and gauze that can cause itching. Scar tissue that forms post-op can also make you want to scratch as you recover.

These are all normal post-surgical reactions, said Dr. Greves. But redness, swelling, heat, puss, or pain, should be checked out by a healthcare provider, as they might signal improper healing or infection.

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Paget's Disease

When you think of breast cancer, lumps inside the breast come to mind. But many types of breast cancer exist, some of which affect the skin.

Paget's disease of the breast is one of these types. It's a rare form of the disease that affects the skin of the nipple and usually the surrounding areola, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The main signs are itching, redness, scaling, and/or flakiness. It can look similar to eczema, per the NCI, and in some instances can cause yellow or bloody discharge from the nipple as well.

"This is not a super common cause of itchy breasts," Dr. Lipner said. "And it's important to know that these symptoms will typically occur asymmetrically, on just one breast, and specifically in the nipple area." If you have these symptoms, however, and especially if they don't respond to eczema treatment or persist, have your healthcare provider take a look, just to be on the safe side.

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Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an aggressive form of the disease that occurs when cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breasts.

Unlike regular breast cancer that's typically detected by a lump, IBC usually produces intense itching, rashes, or bite-like bumps on the breasts. That's why it's called inflammatory—the skin of the breast and nipple appear to be inflamed. IBC can make the breast skin look red or cause a thick, pitted appearance that resembles an orange peel, according to the American Cancer Society.

Any mark or rash on breast or nipple skin that is asymmetric (two sides are not the same), doesn't improve over time, or is bleeding should be checked out by a healthcare provider to make sure it's not something cancerous, said Dr. Lipner. But keep in mind that IBC is rare, accounting for 1-5% of all breast cancer cases, according to the National Cancer Institute.

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