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Plugged milk duct

Milk ducts are small tubes carrying milk from the glands that secrete it, to the nipple. When the baby starts sucking on the nipple, the muscle cells surrounding these tubes contract and push the milk through the ducts. However, if the production of milk is greater than the amount being expressed, breast milk starts building up inside the breast, causing swelling that prevents normal milk flow through the ducts. That is why this condition is called plugged or blocked ducts. The condition can develop into inflammation or mastitis when bacteria enters the ducts and causes infection, so plugged milk ducts should be treated promptly to avoid further complications.

How to recognize a blocked duct

Usual symptoms include:

  • A hard lump in one breast
  • The breast is tender, warm to the touch, red, swollen and sore
  • The lump and the swelling may be reduced after nursing
  • Milk supply seems to be reduced
  • You may express thickened, stringy or fatty milk

If you start feeling feverish and exhausted, it may be that the obstruction has developed into mastitis, so you should seek medical advice.

Common causes of a plugged duct

In general, plugged ducts develop if breasts are not being emptied completely on daily basis. This can happen if:

  • your baby is experiencing trouble breastfeeding due to a poor latch, tongue tie or some other breastfeeding issue
  • you are extending breaks in between feedings due to painful nipples
  • you or your baby are ill
  • you’ve decided to wean your baby „cold turkey“
  • your breasts are being compressed daily, due to an ill-fitting bra, tight clothing or sleeping on your stomach
  • you are under a lot of stress or your immunity is weak
  • you’ve skipped some feedings or the gaps between feedings are too long

Home remedies for a plugged duct

The first rule of successful treatment is – do not stop breastfeeding. Your milk is perfectly safe for your baby and you will promote the healing process by nursing as often as possible. If you’re unable to nurse for any reason, express the milk by using a breast pump or hand expression methods.

General recommendations for a speedy recovery include plenty of rest, drinking a lot of water and having a healthy, balanced diet. Besides that, warm compresses prior to a nursing session can promote milk flow and help express more milk during feeding. You can also massage your breast gently a few minutes before feeding and while your baby is nursing.

Feed your baby whenever you notice they are hungry – sticking to a feeding schedule often leaves long gaps between feedings, which promotes milk build-up. Once your baby has emptied one breast, offer them the other one. Start the next feeding session with the breast you ended the previous session with. Emptying the breasts on daily basis will help with milk flow and prevent further episodes of blockage.

If you are in a lot of pain, taking paracetamol can offer some relief. Cold compresses can also help – use them between feedings to reduce pain and inflammation.

If the symptoms persist after 24h of rest, breastfeeding often, applying compresses and massage, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice.