11 Reasons for Itchy Nipples and Breasts

These health issues can leave you scratching your chest. Here's how to end the itchiness.

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 those annoyingly 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 bringing on your need to scratch? Apart from an annoying underwire, that is.

It's a complaint many patients bring during office visits, said Christine Greves, MD, OB-GYN and member of the Orlando Health Medical Group in Florida. 

Many factors come into play to make your breasts itch, from issues like dry skin to severe conditions like certain types of breast cancer. But even when it's not life-threatening, all that scratching can cut your quality of life.

Here's what you need to know about some possible causes and easy ways to eliminate that bothersome breast issue.

Inflammatory Skin Conditions

When skin is involved in the immune system response, it can lead to irritation and itching. 

People with eczema commonly develop dry, itchy patches of skin in the folds of their arms or knees. On the other hand, psoriasis 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, said Shari Lipner, MD, a dermatologist at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York.

Whether your itchy nipples are due to one of those 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 hot water dries out the 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."

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 regularly 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.

But 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.

Sports Bra Irritation

You don't have to be a hardcore athlete to leave the gym and realize your nipples are inflamed and itchy. It's not just your nipples that end up itching; your sports bra can leave the skin of your breasts itchy. 

"In this case, the skin will have a rash that looks more linear rather than red, scaly patches," said Dr. Lipner.

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

Yeast Infections

Sweat is mainly made of salt, which can dry 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, explained Marie Jhin, MD, board-certified dermatologist and president of Premier Aesthetic Dermatology in San Carlos, Calif.

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

Pregnancy

Pregnancy hormonal changes and weight gain cause breasts and nipples to get larger. It may be surprising, but stretching the skin in those areas can result in itchiness, explained Dr. Jhin.

The good news about this kind of nipple and breast itch is that it's only temporary. After delivery and breastfeeding, your boobs and nipples should return to their original size (or closer to it).

Dr. Greves suggested applying a hypoallergenic lotion to your chest post-shower to stop the urge to scratch.

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can also trigger itching, especially around the nipple. Residue from breast milk can irritate, 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. Those are all signs and symptoms of mastitis, an inflammation or infection of breast tissue that is common among breastfeeding people.

They can also signal yeast infection thrush, explained Sejal Shah, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York. 

Your Period or Menopause

You've probably noticed that your breasts feel tender the week before or during your period. Like many other menstrual cycle-related issues, pin the blame on hormone changes.

"When hormones fluctuate, the breasts tend to get more sensitive," explained Dr. Greves. "That means they may be more prone to irritation and itching." 

Changes in hormones during the menopause transition, which leads 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, noted Dr. Shah.

Radiation Treatments

Radiation therapy uses high-powered waves to treat cancer and has many side effects, including itching.

Here's what happens: radiation can change the texture of the area of skin that's absorbing it, increasing skin sensitivity and promoting itching in the targeted area.

If you're undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer, your breasts and nipples can start itching, even when treatment sessions are over, explained Dr. Jhin. 

Topical medications like corticosteroid creams can help to drive down discomfort. Research has found that using corticosteroids in breast cancer patients undergoing radiation reduces itching and improves the quality of life. But you should always first consult your healthcare provider.

Breast Surgery

Whether you've just undergone breast augmentation, 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 cause itching.

Scar tissue that forms following your operation can also make you want to scratch as you recover.

Those are all normal post-surgical reactions, noted Dr. Greves. A healthcare provider should check out any redness, swelling, heat, pus, or pain, as those signs and symptoms may signal improper healing or infection.

Paget Disease of the Breast

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

Paget disease of the breast is one of those types of breast cancer. It's a rare disease that affects the skin of the nipple and usually the surrounding areola. It can look similar to eczema, and in some instances, it causes yellow or bloody discharge from the nipple. The main signs and symptoms are itching, redness, scaling, and flakiness.

"This is not a super common cause of itchy breasts," explained Dr. Lipner. "And it's important to know that these symptoms will typically occur asymmetrically, on just one breast, specifically in the nipple area." 

However, if you have those symptoms, especially if they don't respond to eczema treatment or persist, have your healthcare provider take a look to be on the safe side.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer

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

Unlike regular breast cancer, typically detected by a lump, IBC 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 inflamed.

IBC can make the breast skin look red or cause a thick, pitted appearance that resembles an orange peel.

Any mark or rash on breast or nipple skin that is asymmetric (only on one side), doesn't improve over time, or is bleeding should be checked out by a healthcare provider to ensure it's not cancerous, said Dr. Lipner. 

But keep in mind that IBC is rare, accounting for 1% to 5% of all breast cancer cases.

Itchy nipples and breasts are common, typically caused by irritants and allergens, hormonal changes due to pregnancy, breastfeeding, menstruation, and menopause, or breast surgery. More severe causes include breast cancer and radiation therapy.

If you have itchy nipples and breasts, accompanied by other breast cancer symptoms—including a lump in your breast or near your underarms, dimpling of the skin of your breast, red or flaky skin near your nipple, changes to the shape of your nipple, discharge other than breast milk, or swollen lymph nodes near your underarms—please immediately consult your healthcare provider.

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Sources
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