The Milk Ducts

The Definition of Lactiferous Ducts and 7 Breast Problems Related to Them

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Breast milk flows through the milk ducts. Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

What Are Milk Ducts?

The milk ducts, also called lactiferous ducts, are the tubes that carry your breast milk from where it is made in the glandular tissue of your breast out to your nipple. There are approximately 15 to 30 milk ducts located in your breast. Where the ducts end at your nipple there are small openings that allow the breast milk to flow out of your body and to your baby.

When your baby is latched on properly and breastfeeding, the motions of your baby's jaw, gums, and tongue help to pull the milk through the ducts and out of your nipple into your baby's mouth.

Your let-down reflex also helps your milk to flow through the milk ducts and out to your baby.

The milk ducts play an important role in the delivery of breast milk to your child, but they can also be a source of breast problems.

7 Breastfeeding Problems Involving the Milk Ducts

Some of the common problems of breastfeeding involve issues with the milk ducts. When breast milk gets clogged inside the ducts or blocks the opening of a duct, it can be painful and interfere with breastfeeding. Other, less common issues can develop in the milk ducts, as well. Here are 7 breastfeeding problems that are related the to the milk ducts.

  • Plugged Milk Ducts: The most common milk duct problems that develop during breastfeeding are plugged milk ducts. The milk ducts can get clogged if your breasts become engorged, if your baby does not empty your breasts well, or if you wear very tight clothing or a poorly fitted bra that puts pressure on your breasts. Plugged milk ducts feel like small, tender lumps in the breast tissue. They are easily treated and usually resolve in a few days.
  • Mastitis: If a plugged milk duct does not go away on its own in a few days, it can lead to mastitis. Mastitis is a breast infection that may appear as a tender, red, warm area on your breast. If you develop mastitis, you may also have a fever and flu-like symptoms. Mastitis needs to be diagnosed and treated by your physician.
  • Blebs: Blebs are small blockages that form on the tip of the nipple at the opening of a milk duct. For some women, blebs are not noticeable and for others, they can be a very painful. Sometimes blebs will go away on their own. However, if they are painful, see your doctor.
  • Damaged Milk Ducts: Milk ducts in the breast can become damaged from breast surgery or radiation therapy. This damage can lead to a true low milk supply.
  • Intraductal Papilloma: Intraductal papillomas are small non-cancerous growths can develop in the milk ducts and cause bleeding from your nipples or blood in your breast milk. Depending on the location of the growth, you may or may not be able to feel a lump. The lump should not continue to grow, and the nipple discharge should not last longer than a few days.
  • Mammary Duct Ectasia: More common in menopausal women, the milk ducts can become swollen or infected. Although it's not considered a dangerous problem, duct ectasia should be evaluated and treated by your doctor.
  • Breast Cancer: Breast cancer can develop inside of the milk ducts of the breast. This type of breast cancer is called ductal carcinoma. If you feel a lump in your breast that does not go away or get smaller within a week, or you notice blood in your breast milk that continues for more than a few days, see your doctor for an examination.

To minimize milk duct issues make sure your baby is latching on correctlybreastfeed your baby very often, use different breastfeeding positions to drain all the areas of your breast, and avoid putting unnecessary pressure on your breast tissue. You should also continue to do your monthly breast self-exam so that you can recognize and treat any issues immediately.  

Sources

American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.

Hussain, A. N., Policarpio, C., and Vincent, M. T. Evaluating Nipple Discharge. Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey. 2006; 61(4): 278-283.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Sixth Edition.  Mosby. Philadelphia. 2005.

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