Many women experience tingling in their breasts when they’re menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding. These sensations are usually a sign of normal hormonal fluctuations and nothing to worry about.
Tingling in the nipples and areola is one of the first signs of pregnancy, often occurring within a week or so of conception. It can also occur while breastfeeding or taking certain hormones 1.
1. You’re pregnant
Pregnancy hormones surge during the first trimester and encourage milk ducts to open and produce a tingling sensation in the breasts. This is a normal and harmless symptom of pregnancy that you should not worry about, though some women may find it more uncomfortable than others.
In addition to a tingling sensation, other early pregnancy signs include morning sickness and a missed period (though missing a period isn’t always a reliable sign of pregnancy). Also, the nipples and areolas can become darker as the baby’s fat and milk glands develop and change shape.
In very rare cases, a tingling sensation can be an early symptom of Paget’s disease of the breast, an uncommon form of cancer that affects the skin around the nipple and areola 2. However, this condition is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as flaking, crusty or thickened skin.
2. You’re breastfeeding
If you’re breastfeeding, you may feel a tingling sensation in your breasts or nipple. This is a normal sign of the “milk ejection reflex,” which happens when your body releases two hormones, prolactin and oxytocin. These hormones help stimulate milk production and cause the ducts to release the milk, or let-down (1). You may also experience a feeling of pins and needles, a warm sensation or breast milk leaking during the let-down process.
In rare cases, nipple and areola pain or tingling can be a symptom of Paget’s disease, an uncommon form of breast cancer that affects the skin around the nipple and areola (2). If you notice these symptoms, contact your doctor for recommendations and guidelines.
You can relieve this type of nipple pain by gently massaging your breasts in straight, gentle strokes from the top of your breast to the nipple. This massage will encourage the milk to flow freely through the ducts and provide relief from this common side effect of breastfeeding. You can also try placing a warm compress over the area to help soothe the pain and encourage a good milk flow.
3. You’re engorged
Most new mums experience this prickly pins-and-needles feeling when breastfeeding, but if your tingling is accompanied by pain or a runny nose, see your doctor for treatment. These are signs of a yeast infection or bacterial infection that require immediate attention.
Sometimes a baby’s demand for milk exceeds the amount of breast tissue can hold, resulting in engorgement (think rock hard and painful). This sensation is normal, and usually occurs during one or both breasts. If your nipples are uncomfortable, try rubbing them with warm wet washcloths or putting chilled cabbage leaves on them (don’t put the leaves directly on your nipples!). Expressing your milk may help too. Talk to your midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding specialist about how best to do this safely and effectively.
4. You have a yeast infection
Yeast infections are common, especially in women, and most of them can be treated easily with over-the-counter antifungal creams, ointments, or suppositories. Just make sure you don’t confuse it with a urinary tract infection (UTI)—that’s a bacterial infection that affects the entire urethra and bladder, causing pain when you pee and frequent urination.
It’s normal to have tiny yeast cells, known as Candida, living in your vagina, mouth, and intestines. But sometimes the balance of these bacteria gets off, allowing too much yeast to grow and cause infection. This is more likely to happen during pregnancy or after taking antibiotics, as these medications change the balance of good and bad bacteria in your body. Other risk factors include sex, wearing tight underwear, and having a weak immune system.
This is why it’s best to see a doctor or nurse for a yeast infection diagnosis. They can take a sample of your vaginal discharge with a cotton swab, and then use the results to determine what kind of treatment you need. You can also visit this CDC website for thorough and up-to-date information on yeast infections.
5. You have a bacterial infection
A tingling feeling (called paresthesia) occurs when a nerve is irritated, damaged or under pressure and can’t send normal electrical signals, per the University of Rochester Medical Center. This is similar to that pins and needles sensation you might have in your hands if you sit or lie on them for too long.
Bacterial infections can be serious, especially when they reach deep inside the body like your blood, heart or lungs, per the Australian Sepsis Network. They can also be a sign of sepsis, which is a medical emergency and can cause organ failure or even death if not treated quickly.
It’s not normal for a tingling sensation in your breast to indicate that you have cancer, according to the National Institute of Health (NCI). However, in rare cases, it can be a sign of Paget’s disease of the breast, an uncommon form of breast cancer that affects the skin of the nipple and areola (the darker skin surrounding your nipple) 1. This is typically accompanied by other symptoms like itching or a crusty or thickening of the nipple area or yellow or bloody nipple discharge 2. In these situations, see your doctor immediately.