Bleeding from the breasts can have a number of causes, including breastfeeding and age-related changes. But in some cases, this symptom can be a sign of a serious medical condition.
Roshni Rao, MD, chief of the Breast Surgery Program at Columbia University Medical Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com that bleeding from the nipple is less concerning than bleeding from the skin of the breast.
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Bleeding nipples may seem alarming, but the underlying cause is typically benign and easy to solve. In contrast, bleeding from a skin lesion or lump in the breasts likely indicates a more serious issue.
Find out what you need to know about the potential causes of these symptoms.
1. Sore Nipples Due to Breastfeeding
Tender nipples are common during the first few days of breastfeeding, according to HealthLink BC. However, if the baby isn't positioned properly during nursing, or if the baby has trouble latching on, it can cause the mother's nipples to become bruised and cracked, or even bleed.
Don't ignore these symptoms if you experience them. Pain during breastfeeding can indicate issues with how the baby is positioned, but it can also be a sign of a breast infection. This can occur if bacteria enter the breast through chaffed or cracked skin. If you experience fever, flu-like symptoms and breast pain, see your doctor as soon as possible.
2. Benign Intraductal Papilloma
An intraductal papilloma is a benign (aka non-cancerous) type of tumor, according to Breast Cancer Now. This wart-like tumor can develop in one or more of the milk ducts in the breast, usually close to the nipple. This condition usually affects women over 40 due to age-related changes in the breast.
The most common symptoms are a small lump near the nipple and clear or bloody nipple discharge from the affected breast. Intraductal papillomas aren't usually painful, but some women do experience breast tenderness and discomfort.
A single intraductal papilloma doesn't typically increase the risk of breast cancer, but having multiple papillomas may increase the risk slightly, according to the American Cancer Society. In addition, approximately 16 percent of intraductal papilloma can be associated with breast cancer. Therefore, intraductal papillomas are usually removed through surgery.
3. Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a potentially life-threatening medical condition. It's the second most common form of cancer for American women (after skin cancer), affecting roughly one in eight women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
"Bleeding from a skin lesion or lump in the breast is much more concerning [than bleeding nipples]. It's associated with a [cancerous] lump that grows through the skin and can cause bleeding," Dr. Rao says.
You're likely aware that breast lumps or lumps under the armpit are very common signs of breast cancer. However, breast cancer can also cause a number of other symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer symptoms include:
- New lump in the breast or armpit
- Pain in any area of the breast
- Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
- Inverted nipple (nipple that faces inwards)
- Changes to the shape or size of the breast
- Redness or flakiness of the nipple or skin of the breast
If you notice any of these symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
4. Paget's Disease of the Breast
In rare cases, bleeding from the nipple may also indicate cancer.
Paget's disease of the breast is a rare form of cancer that primarily affects the nipple and areola (the darker skin surrounding the nipple), according to the National Cancer Institute. People with Paget's disease will also often have one or more cancerous tumors within the affected breast.
The most common symptoms of Paget's disease affect the nipple and surrounding skin and include:
- Itchy or tingling sensations
- Flaky or thickened skin
- Yellowish or bloody discharge
Note that symptoms of Paget's disease of the breast can can be similar to those of benign skin conditions like eczema. So, if you see these symptoms, don't ignore them. See a doctor for a proper evaluation.
- American Cancer Society: "Intraductal Papillomas of the Breast"
- HealthLink BC: "Breastfeeding: Sore Nipples"
- Breast Cancer Now: "Intraductal Papilloma"
- National Cancer Institute: "Paget Disease of the Breast"
- Mayo Clinic: "Breast Cancer"
- American Cancer Society: "How Common Is Breast Cancer?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?"
- Merck Manual: Nipple Discharge
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.