All About Areola and Nipple Health

Understand the Ins and Outs, Leaks and Bumps, Pains and Pleasures of Nipples

Female anatomy, computer artwork.

Your nipple and areola are the focal points of each breast. They are a source of milk for your baby, and of pleasure for you and your partner. Nipples and areolas are complex -- they deserve your care and attention to keep them healthy.

Nipple Purpose, Shape, and Changes

Nipples are a working piece of the female body, not just a decorative afterthought on the swell of your breast. Nipples and areolas are connected to your milk production glands, and they have a fascinating anatomy.

There has always been an argument about what normal nipples are. "Normal" nipples are the ones you were given at birth, and they can certainly vary from person to person. Nipples may change as you age, or they may need some surgical remodeling if you have trouble breastfeeding.

Nipples changes occur in response to medications, hormones, a baby's cry, or stimulation of other kinds. But medical conditions may also cause nipple changes, so you need to know what to watch out for and how to deal with nipple problems.

Be sure to check your nipples every month when you do your breast self-exam.

Breast Milk and Nipple Discharge

Breast tissue develops during pregnancy, and milk production starts after birth. Babies will root around for your nipple and have the ability to suckle as soon as two hours after birth.

But breast milk is not the only fluid that may come out of your nipple. Nipples may leak fluid that can vary in thickness, color, and texture.

Most nipple discharge is benign, and can be cleared up with help from your doctor. Sometimes nipple discharge is a sign of cancer, though, so be sure to see your doctor if you notice it.

Nipples, Rock Stars, and Witches?

Nipples, like ears, noses, and other body parts, can be pierced for jewelry wearing.

(We may never forget when a wardrobe malfunction displayed a pop singer's pierced nipple on television.) Any hole in your skin can leave you vulnerable to infection, but piercing your nipple should not raise your risk of breast cancer.

As if celebrity stories about nipple exposure didn't give this body part enough attention, stories say that witches, villains, and ancient gods may have had extra nipples, along with special powers. The possibility of an extra nipple is quite real, actually, but some may have one and not enough realize. Not all look like the standard-issue model.

Nipple Discomforts and Diseases

Your nipples and areolas can be sensitive to heat, cold, stimulation, and pressure.

If you have nipple pain while breastfeeding, there are several ways to get relief. Even if you aren't breastfeeding and you feel pain or swelling beneath your nipple and areola, it may be a subareolar abscess, which will need some medical attention.

Anyone's nipple may itch, but if the itch persists and the skin reddens, becomes flaky, or tingles -- or if you have nipple retraction -- get it checked out. It may be Paget's disease of the nipple, a type of breast cancer.

Some of us who have had a mastectomy have also experienced itching or aching from a breast and nipple that are no longer there.

We aren't crazy -- this sensation is called phantom pain, and it is real. As your body adjusts, this phantom pain will fade.

New Nipples?

After the first stage of breast reconstruction, your new breast has no nipple. You may consider nipple creation after a reconstruction, which includes a tattoo to recreate your areola. If you aren't ready for nipple reconstruction surgery, you might try a self-adhesive nipple prosthesis as these come in a variety of sizes and colors. Or, like Geralyn Lucas wrote in her book "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy," you may skip nipple reconstruction and have a heart tattooed over your nipple area as a mark of survival.

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