Skin structurally similar to that of the rest of the chest covers the majority of the breast. The darker skin of the nipple and areola differs from the surrounding breast skin and contain numerous oil glands that keep the area moist. Several conditions that cause itchiness of other body areas can also affect the breast. Certain disorders that only affect the breast might also provoke itchiness in this area. Breast itchiness may represent a temporary discomfort or signal a more serious underlying medical problem.
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Skin inflammation, or dermatitis, is a leading cause of breast itchiness. Different types of dermatitis can affect the breast skin, all of which cause a red, itchy rash. The skin might appear dry and flaky or have small, wet blisters. Atopic dermatitis, commonly known as hereditary eczema, sometimes involves the breast with the nipple and areola most frequently involved. As other skin areas are typically also involved, this diagnosis usually proves straightforward.
Allergic and irritant contact dermatitis can also involve the breast, causing an itchy red rash. With these conditions, direct contact with an aggravating chemical provokes the rash. Substances that might lead to breast contact dermatitis include:
- Laundry detergent, fabric conditioner, bleach or soap residue
- Elastic materials and bands in bras and other garments
- Fragrances and chemicals in creams applied to the breast, such as lanolin
- Metals in nipple rings and jewelry, especially nickel
Breast dermatitis treatment typically involves use of moisturizers and elimination of contact with any provoking chemicals(s). Short-term use of hydrocortisone cream might also be recommended.
Intertrigo describes superficial skin inflammation caused by a combination of moisture and friction. This skin condition often affects the skin folds on the underside of the breasts. Itchiness along with burning or stinging develops along with a red rash. Bacteria or yeast sometimes secondarily infect the area due to superficial skin breakdown. Treatment involves keeping the area clean and dry along with use of protective skin ointments and drying agents, such as talcum powder. A topical antifungal or antibiotic is added if the area is secondarily infected.
Uncommonly, breast itchiness might signal breast cancer. This symptom occurs most frequently with a relatively rare but rapidly progressive form of the disease known as inflammatory breast cancer. Other signs and symptoms might include rapid breast enlargement, red or purple skin discoloration, and thickened breast skin causing it to resemble an orange peel.
Another cancerous condition called Paget disease of the breast (PDB) typically develops in the skin of one nipple and spreads to the areola and possibly the surrounding skin. The involved skin exhibits a dermatitis-like rash with accompanying itchiness. While PDB represents cancer of the nipple skin, most people with the disease also have an underlying breast cancer in the same breast.
Several other conditions can potentially cause itchiness in one or both breasts. Examples of these ailments include:
- Flexural psoriasis: a form of psoriasis that often involves the skin folds on the underside of the breasts
- Erosive adenomatosis of the nipple: a rare noncancerous skin disorder of the nipple that often mimics nipple eczema or PDB
- Lichen sclerosis: an uncommon inflammatory skin disorder that causes thinning of the skin; folds under breasts may be involved
- Other skin cancers involving the breast: Bowen disease, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma
- Skin infections and infestations: ringworm (fungal infection), scabies (skin mites), other insect or bug bites
While this list is not exhaustive, it conveys the large number of possible causes for breast itchiness.
Next Steps, Warnings and Precautions
Breast itchiness is a relatively common symptom. In most cases, the underlying cause poses no serious, long-term health threat and can be managed with simple interventions. However, given the extensive list of possible causes and the fact that breast itchiness sometimes signals a serious underlying medical condition, it is best to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you develop this symptom. Prompt medical evaluation is particularly important if you experience any accompanying warning signs and symptoms, including:
- Fever and/or chills
- Swelling or enlargement of the involved breast
- Nipple discharge
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.