There are two words that, when said together, can make any woman cringe: nipple pain. Tenderness, soreness, irritation—the discomfort of any kind in the nips can be just as confusing as it is uncomfortable. When it happens, you may not be able to think about anything else except Why do my nipples hurt?
Tbh, your nipples are super-sensitive (they’re a top erogenous zone, after all). When that sensitivity turns to pain, you don’t need to fret. “Nipple pain can be broken down into pain related to breastfeeding and the postpartum period and pain in other contexts,” says Spencer McClelland, MD, an ob-gyn in Denver, Colorado.
The good news is the discomfort is typically not a cause for much concern. “For the most part, nipple pain is related to harmless causes, and if there are no visible changes of the skin or unusual nipple discharge, it is not a cause for immediate concern,” she says. Phew!
Various lifestyle habits and health changes could contribute to nipple pain, and luckily, most can easily be resolved (like finally ditching that ill-fitting sports bra).
Serious causes may come with more alarming symptoms like nipple discharge, lumps, or changes in the color or texture of your breast skin. If you have any of these signs plus pain in your nips, check in with your ob-gyn.
To help you find out what you could be dealing with, here are eight reasons why your nipples may be hurting and what you can do about it.
1. You have an infection in your nipples.
Yep, your nipples can get infected: “There are large pores and hair follicles around the nipple that can become clogged and infected just like in your underarm or pubic areas,” says Jenna Sassie, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Women’s Healthcare Associates in Houston.
One possible type of infection, believe it or not, is a yeast infection on your nipple (yes, those yeast infections). These usually occur under the breast where sweat collects, says Dr. Sassie, but since yeast thrives in moist, dark environments, women who regularly wear bras made of non-breathable material might be prone to yeast infections on their nipples too.
Thrush is another type of yeast infection that’s passed on to breastfeeding mothers from their babies. Luckily, these infections can be treated with antibiotics—for you, and if you’re breastfeeding, for your baby too.
Although it is common in breastfeeding mothers, others are also at risk for these infections, like those with diabetes. If the skin of the nipple is thin, reddened, and shiny, you may have an infection.
Nipple piercings can also lead to infection, especially if it’s not done with good technique or cared for meticulously afterward, says Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in Westchester, New York, and assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. So, if you’re considering accessorizing your girls, do your research and find a reputable tattoo and piercing parlor.
Other symptoms of a nipple infection include itching, swelling, tenderness, warmth, and nipple discharge, according to Mount Sinai.
2. You have “jogger’s nipple.”
If you work out regularly or are training for a long endurance event like a marathon, experiencing chafing or irritation from clothing such as a sports bra isn’t that uncommon—TBH, it’s almost a rite of passage.
Dweck advises wearing a well-fitting, good-quality sports bra and using an anti-chafing balm such as Body Glide to prevent irritation.
Invest in anti-chafing balm such as Body Glide to reduce nipple irritation while running.
But you don’t have to be a runner to get “jogger’s nipple”—it can happen in everyday clothes too. “I’ve also had patients wearing poor-fitting lace bras and such who wind up with rashes or sensitivity because it’s rubbing the nipple all day long,” Dr. Sassie says.
If that’s the case, it might be worth going through your intimates drawer to figure out if it’s really worth keeping some of those pretty, yet too itchy, bras around.
Other symptoms of a jogger’s nipple include growing discomfort after a run and bleeding nipples, according to Sports Injury Clinic.
3. You’re experiencing hormonal changes.
One of the first things you want to consider when you first experience breast pain is whether or not you might be pregnant. “Nipple pain is sometimes the first sign that you are expecting,” says Dr. Sassie.
So, if you’re not on birth control and are experiencing signs of nipple irritation, you wouldn’t be crazy for rushing out to buy a pregnancy test.
Your period may also be to blame for your nipple tenderness. In fact, many women experience pain in the area “as a symptom before their period, in relation to hormonal changes, and usually in tandem with the pain of the rest of the breast,” Dr. McClelland explains.
Your levels of progesterone and estrogen production peak the week before your period, and this can often cause the breasts and milk glands to swell, resulting in tenderness. So, if your nipples and breasts are both hurting, it’s likely a sign that your period is coming. As your period symptoms decrease, so should your nipple pain.
Looking to avoid this in the future? “For patients with bothersome symptoms related to the hormone changes of the menstrual cycle—whether it’s nipple and breast pain, mood changes, or menstrual migraines—hormonal birth control can make a difference,” says Dr. McClelland.
Similarly, if you stopped or started a new birth control method or pill, are about to start your period, or are experiencing any major hormonal fluctuations such as perimenopause, you may experience breast and nipple pain as well, says Dr. Sassie; which, while a literal pain, is usually nothing to worry about.
Other symptoms of hormonal changes include constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, irregular periods, and acne, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
4. You’re breastfeeding.
A very unfortunate truth: Experiencing pain while breastfeeding is mostly normal, for a number of reasons—your breast pump doesn’t fit well, you have clogged milk ducts, your nipples are cracked, or your baby has latching issues. Nipple creams like Medela Tender Care Lanolin can often help new moms get some relief.
Mastitis can also cause flu-like symptoms, like fever, aches, and fatigue.
But sometimes pain during breastfeeding isn’t normal—like with mastitis, (a.k.a. inflammation of breast tissue). Symptoms of mastitis include breast tenderness or warmth to the touch, breast swelling, thickening of breast tissue or a breast lump; pain or a burning sensation while breastfeeding or during normal daily activities; and skin redness, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“If you are experiencing pain while breastfeeding and also have a fever or chills or you are generally feeling ill, definitely visit your doctor,” Dr. Sassie says.
5. You’re having an allergic reaction.
If you’re experiencing itchiness or irritation after using a new fragrance, soap, lotion, or even laundry detergent or fabric softener, your newfound nipple pain might be the result of an allergic reaction.
If you have made a recent switch—and identified that as the source of your pain—you might be better off going back to your old favorite or seeking out a fragrance-free or hypoallergenic version of the product. Talk to your doc to get a recommendation for an anti-itch cream or ointment.
6. You started or changed a medication.
“Some medications can have side effects that cause nipple sensitivity or even discharge from the nipple,” says Dr. Sassie “These can be herbal supplements or prescriptions, especially psychiatric drugs.” Check with your doctor if you think that’s the case.
On the other hand, “systemic allergies, like to a medication, would be a very unlikely source of nipple pain,” Dr. McClelland notes. If that’s the case, you’ll notice other symptoms, such as “skin rashes, swelling of the face, vomiting, and trouble breathing,” as well.
Additionally, if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, treatment such as surgery and radiation can cause breast pain as well, says Dr. Dweck.
Ob-gyns recommend talking to your doctor about holding off on the problematic medication to see if there’s an alternative with less painful side effects.
7. You have eczema.
While it’s less common, your tenderness may be a byproduct of a dermatologic condition like eczema, according to Dr. McClelland.
If your discomfort is accompanied by a breast rash that’s sticking around, you may be experiencing eczema on your nipples. In severe cases, the itchy rash and dry skin can make it difficult to move, wear clothing, or sleep, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Cutting out products with fragrances and scented laundry detergent can help prevent this. Make sure to keep the area moisturized with unscented lotion or petroleum jelly to treat this condition. In more severe cases, taking medications, such as corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation and itchiness, may be the key to your pain relief.
8. You could have breast cancer.
This is one of the less common reasons but worth mentioning. Nipple pain can also be a symptom of breast cancer, along with the flattening or turning inward of the nipple and swollen lymph nodes under the nearby arm. A red, purple, or pink discoloration and ridges on the skin of the breast are also common red flags to look out for, according to The Mayo Clinic. Many have described it as a burning or tender sensation, and the pain caused by breast cancer is often gradual, so it’s best to head to your doctor’s office if you suspect you have this condition.
Treatment typically includes chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy to prevent the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.