Everyone has nipples—you know, those pointy, round things Instagram likes to censor. And in case you didn’t know, nipples are an erogenous zone on the human body, meaning they are highly sensitive and send arousal signals to the brain, much like the cervix, clitoris, and foreskin do. And because they’re so sensitive, it isn’t uncommon to experience some uncomfortable soreness from time to time—maybe even a little discoloration and discharge, too.
“The most common reasons [for nipple pain among women] would be hormonal changes like ovulation and menstrual cycle,” said Dr. Michelle Gooch, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the OB/GYN Group of Austin, Texas.
For some women, nipple pain can come from increased amounts of estrogen as their bodies change, or it could be a sign of something worse, making it important to routinely check those oft-forgotten-about body parts for noticeable differences. However, according to Dr. Gooch, only “less than 5 percent of breast and nipple pain will be due to a cancerous process.”
Next time your nipples aren’t having a good day, think about these possibilities—and then check in with your ob-gyn anyway.
1) Friction is the conviction.
The culprit of sore nipples can be as simple as a case of chafing or friction from clothing that doesn’t fit properly, which is otherwise known as “joggers nipple.” Before you embark on your next workout, take a second to make sure your sports bra isn’t too tight and rub vaseline on or add covers to protect your nipples.
2) You may be pregnant.
Soreness detected in the breast area is one of the first signs of having a bun in the oven. It isn’t just exclusive to the nipples, though, as the whole breast tissue can become painfully sensitive from a high blood volume that is triggered.
3) It’s that time of the month.
Don’t freak out just yet, menstrual cycles are another reason why your nipples and breast tissue may be sore. During periods, women also experience high levels of estrogen and progesterone fluctuation, causing breasts to swell from temporary fluid absorption.
A tip for reducing soreness of the nipple or breast during that lovely time of the month is to reduce sodium intake, as it makes the tenderness worse by retaining water in your breast tissue.
4) You might have ectasia.
Mammary duct ectasia is when a milk duct in your breast widens and clogs up with fluids. It is mostly identified in women 45 years of age or older, and can later turn into mastitis if not taken care of in time.
If this may be the case for your nipples, ectasia can be healed with antibiotics or, in extreme cases, surgery.
5) Are you breastfeeding?
According to Dr. Gooch, breastfeeding is the most common complaint her practice gets when it comes to soreness of the nipples or breasts. Breastfeeding is a process that doesn’t come as naturally as many imply, since not all babies latch correctly, causing immense pain. However, the soreness should diminish after a week or two post-birth or with the help of a lactation consultant who can help mother and baby finding the right positioning.
In the meantime, however, all that trial and error can take a toll on your nipples, causing soreness and redness, and possibly drawing blood. If bloody discharge occurs, it is probably a sign that your nipples have been injured and need care. Babies’ mouths carry germs that could cause infections, so be cautious.
6) Your nipples are allergic to something.
Nipple infections are more common than people think and often happen through breastfeeding or trapped bacteria from bad hygiene. Other causes of itchy, inflamed, and sore nipples could be from eczema or an allergic reaction. Make sure to check if you are allergic to any lotions, personal products, or fabrics.
To help alleviate some of the nipple pain, take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory like Advil and perhaps purchase a supportive bra. Whether your nipples are inverted, pink, hairy, or barely there, they still deserve a little bit of TLC every now and then.