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Women's Health

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Breast and Nipple Discharge: What It Could Mean

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What causes abnormal nipple discharge and can it be noncancerous?

A number of noncancerous conditions can cause nipple discharge.

If your initial medical evaluation indicates the discharge is abnormal, your doctor may ask for more tests. The tests will help determine the underlying condition that's causing the problem and may include one or more of the following:

  • Laboratory analysis of the discharge
  • Blood tests
  • Mammogram and/or ultrasound of one or both breasts
  • A brain scan
  • Surgical excision and analysis of one or more ducts in your nipple

Possible causes of abnormal discharge include:

  • Fibrocystic breast changes. Fibrocystic refers to the presence or development of fibrous tissue and cysts. Fibrocystic changes in your breasts may cause lumps or thickenings in your breast tissue. They do not indicate, though, the presence of cancer. In addition to causing pain and itching, fibrocystic breast changes can, at times, cause secretion of clear, white, yellow, or green nipple discharge.
  • Galactorrhea. It might sound scary. But galactorrhea simply describes a condition in which a woman's breast secretes milk or a milky nipple discharge even though she is not breastfeeding. Galactorrhea is not a disease and has many possible causes. These include:
    • Pituitary gland tumors
    • Certain medications, including some hormones and psychotropic drugs
    • Some herbs, such as anise and fennel
    • Hypothyroidism
    • Illegal drugs, including marijuana
  • Infection. Nipple discharge that contains pus may indicate an infection in your breast. This is also known as mastitis. Mastitis is usually seen in women who are breastfeeding. But it can develop in women who are not lactating. If you have an infection or abscess in your breast, you may also notice that your breast is sore, red, or warm to the touch.
  • Mammary duct ectasia. This is the second most common cause of abnormal nipple discharge. It is typically seen in women who are approaching menopause. This condition results in inflammation and possible blockage of ducts located underneath the nipple. When this occurs, an infection may develop that results in thick, greenish nipple discharge.
  • Intraductal papilloma. These are noncancerous growths in the ducts of the breast. They are the most common reason women experience abnormal nipple discharge. When they become inflamed, intraductal papillomas may result in nipple discharge that contains blood or is sticky in texture.

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