Can You Breastfeed if You Have Herpes?

Mother breastfeeding baby girl in bedroom
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Women with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, should not breastfeed. But what about other sexually transmitted infections, like herpes? The answer is a little more complex than a simple yes or no. Let's take a closer look at herpes and whether this infection is a contraindication to breastfeeding. 

What Is Herpes?

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection known medically as herpes simplex virus, or HSV.

There are two types:

While either type can cause genital or mouth/lip herpes, HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes and HSV-1 usually causes herpes on the mouth—known often as "cold sores" or "fever blisters." 

How Does Herpes Get on the Breast?

While herpes usually infects the mouth/lips and genitals, it can infect any part of the skin—including the breast, although this is uncommon.

Herpes is spread through contact with someone else with the herpes infection. For instance, genital herpes is transmitted through genital-genital contact or genital-oral contact with another person who has herpes.

In the case of herpes of the breast, the skin of the breast must have come into contact with the infected skin of another person with herpes.

It's important to note that a person can pass herpes to someone else even if they have no symptoms or visible blisters—meaning the virus can be present on the skin without an obvious herpes sore.

What Does Herpes of the Breast Look and Feel Like?

Herpes on the breast looks like tiny fluid-filled bumps on a red base that are tender. Some people will experience flu-like symptoms with a herpes outbreak, especially the first one. Future outbreaks may occur, but they almost always last a shorter time and are not as painful.

 

In people with HIV, herpes outbreaks can be more severe and last longer due to their impaired immune system. 

It's important to see your doctor for a diagnosis, as herpes of the breast can resemble a yeast or bacterial infection or plugged milk ducts. 

Can A Woman Breastfeed if She Has Herpes?

If a woman has herpes on her body other than her breast, like her mouth or genitals, breastfeeding is safe, as the viral organisms or infected bugs cannot pass through a woman's body into her milk. 

On the other hand, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if a woman has herpes sores on her breast, she should not breastfeed.

However, she can express or pump milk from that breast, as long as the parts of the breast pump that touch the milk do not come into contact with the herpes sores. If this occurs, a woman should throw the milk away. 

What Is the Risk if a Baby Nurses on a Breast With Herpes Sores?

A baby who nurses on a breast with herpes sores is at risk of developing a life-threatening infection of his or her nervous system.

If a woman suspects or has been diagnosed with herpes of the breast, it's critical she stop nursing from the affected breast. 

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and Human Milk. Retrieved September 22nd 2015. Pediatrics 2012 Mar;129(3):e827-41. 

Brown H, Kneafsey P, & Kureishi A. Herpes simplex mastitis: Case report and review of the literature. Can J Infect Dis. 1996 May-Jun;7(3):209-12.

Heller MM, Fullerton-Stone H, & Murase JE. Caring for new mothers: diagnosis, management, and treatment of nipple dermatitis in breastfeeding mothers. Int J Dermatol. 2012 Oct;51(10):1149-61.

WomensHealth.gov. (2014). Genital herpes fact sheet. Retrieved September 22nd 2015. 

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