11 Reasons Your Breasts and Nipples Are Itchy
What's that itch?
Dry, flaky nipples. Irritated underboob. Breast skin so itchy you spend half the workday secretly reaching into your blouse to scratch your rack. 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 breast and nipple itching, and what’s actually bringing on your need to scratch? (Apart from annoying underwire, that is.)
It's a complaint many patients bring to her during office visits, says 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.”
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Lots of factors come into play making your breasts itch, from benign 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. We asked doctors to outline for us all the possible causes, then explain easy ways to get rid of this bothersome breast issue.
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, says Shari Lipner, MD, a dermatologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
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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,” suggests Dr. Lipner. “Follow up with a good moisturizer too. Thick creams or ointments work better than lotions.”
Chemicals added to cleansing products that directly touch your skin can trigger something 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 your girls are 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,” explains 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.
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 crazy-itchy as well. Says Dr. Lipner: “In this case, the skin will have a rash that looks more linear, rather than red, scaly patches.”
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.
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 (aka, your underboob) can also promote itching by attracting yeast and leading to a skin yeast infection, says Marie Jhin, MD, a San Francisco–based dermatologist.
To keep moisture from collecting under the skin, wear breathable clothing and rinse off with soap after a sweat session. Ah, that's why gym locker rooms have showers, right?
When a woman becomes pregnant, hormonal changes and weight gain cause her breasts and nipples to get larger. It sounds strange, but the stretching of skin in these areas can result in itchiness, says Dr. Jhin.
“When I was pregnant, it was so itchy,” Dr. Greves tells Health. To stop the urge to scratch, she suggests 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 will return to their original size (or closer to it).
Speaking of breastfeeding, this 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 doctor if the itch is accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain, swelling, or cracking of the nipples. These are all signs of mastitis, a common issue for nursing moms. The symptoms can also signal the yeast infection thrush, says Sejal Shah, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist.
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,” says Dr. Greves. “That means they may be more prone to irritation and itching.” Hormone swings during menopause can have the same itchy effect.
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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, says Dr. Shah.
Radiation therapy has many side effects, and itching is one of them. 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 says. Topical medications like corticosteroid creams can help to drive down discomfort. You should also talk to your doctor as well.
Whether you’ve just undergone breast augmentation 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, says Dr. Greves. But redness, swelling, heat, puss, or pain, should be checked out by a doctor, as they might signal improper healing or infection.
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 and don't present as lumps or growths.
Paget’s disease of the breast is one of these types. It's a rare form of the disease that affects the top layer of skin on the nipple and the surrounding areola. The main signs are itching, redness, scaling, and/or flakiness. It can look similar to eczema, according to the American Cancer Society, and in rare instances can cause bleeding from the nipple as well.
“This is not a super common cause of itchy breasts,” Dr. Lipner says. “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 they don't respond to eczema treatment or persist, have your doctor take a look, just to be on the safe side.
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an aggressive form of the disease that occurs when cancer cells enter the skin and lymph vessels 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.
Any mark or rash on breast or nipple skin that is asymmetric, doesn't improve over time, or is bleeding should be checked out by a doctor to make sure it’s not something cancerous, says Dr. Lipner. The good news is that IBC is rare, accounting for 1-5% of all breast cancer cases, according to the National Cancer Institute.