Are Itchy Breasts a Symptom of Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

Itchy breasts could signal cancer, but there are plenty of other harmless causes

woman examining breast
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Many girls and women experience itchy breasts but aren't certain when this sensation is a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). This form of breast cancer is uncommon, but the disease has received an increasing amount of media attention. The heightened awareness stems from the symptoms of IBC, which are quite different from the symptoms of more common forms of breast cancer.

While many people associate breast cancer symptoms with breast lumps, most people aren't aware that symptoms like breast pain, swelling, and reddening of the skin are also signs of the disease.

Even more surprising is that having itchy breasts can be a symptom of this aggressive type of breast cancer. 

Women should know that itchy breasts may be indicative of something serious, like breast cancer, but the symptom is most likely caused by a much less serious condition. 

When Breast Itching May Signal Cancer

In certain circumstances, breast itching should be medically evaluated as soon as possible. If breast itching is accompanied by other breast symptoms, see a doctor. These symptoms include:

  • reddening of the breast
  • dimpling or pitting of the breast, resembling an orange peel
  • breast pain
  • breast swelling, thickening, or sudden growth of one or both breasts that is not related to puberty or weight gain
  • breast warmth
  • breast becoming harder

These signs and symptoms are worrisome for inflammatory breast cancer, which accounts for about one percent of all breast cancer diagnoses in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

Additionally, itching that's limited to the nipple or spreads outward to the areola may be worrisome for a rare type of breast cancer called Paget's disease of the breast. In this cancer, there is usually a red, thick, and sometimes crusted lesion on the nipple that resembles eczema. It can cause pain or itching, and sometimes the nipple is also deformed or retracted.

Benign (Harmless) Causes of Itchy Breasts

These are some more common causes of itchy breasts. 

  • Mastitis: This is an issue that most commonly affects women who are breastfeeding. Breast pain, redness, warmth, and itching may be seen with a breast infection like mastitis. If your doctor suspects an infection as the culprit, he or she will treat you with antibiotics. If the symptoms do not improve within a week, further tests should be done to look for cancer, especially inflammatory breast cancer.
  • DermatitisThe most common cause of itchy breasts is a dermatologic reaction to something that your skin has been exposed to recently. Common culprits include new clothes, detergents, perfumes, lotions, shampoos, and dry skin. The solution is simple—eliminate any irritants and keep the skin moisturized. Most women find relief by using products that are labeled unscented and are perfume- or dye-free. Products that are made for sensitive skin usually do not contain ingredients that are common irritants. Whether you use a washing machine to wash your bras or wash them by hand, always make sure that they are thoroughly rinsed with water. Residue from the detergent can irritate the skin and cause itching.
  • Yeast Infection: You may be familiar with vaginal yeast infections, but did you know that the skin of the breast can also experience an overgrowth of yeast that can cause itching? Wearing a bra that doesn't allow the skin to breathe or wearing one for many hours daily can create a dark and moist environment that allows fungi to grow and thrive. When a fungal infection affects the breast, it most likely causes itchiness under the breasts and on the sides of the breasts. You might find relief with over-the-counter antifungal creams or your doctor can prescribe a stronger antifungal medication. To prevent yeast growth under the breasts, try wearing bras that are made of a breathable fabric, like cotton. After showering, make sure that the area under your breasts is completely dry before putting on a bra. Additionally, avoid wearing a bra at night. If you work out, wear a bra that's made of a wicking fabric that keeps sweat and moisture away from the skin. 
  • Post-Surgical Reaction: If you have had recent breast surgery, itching can be a normal part of recovery. Breast enlargement surgery, especially, can cause itchiness. The skin of the breast stretches to accommodate the implant and the result can be itchy breasts. Most women find that the itching goes away within a few months after surgery. If itchiness is persistent and intolerable, you should consult your surgeon or your primary care doctor. 
  • Other Benign Causes: Finally, weight gain, puberty, and pregnancy all commonly cause the breasts to become bigger, which can cause itching as the skin stretches. Although it's not common, the nickel in the underwire of bras can cause an allergic reaction in some women, as well. Nickel-free underwire bras can be purchased online at specialty retailers.

A Word From Verywell

While itchy breasts are certainly not a slam-dunk indication that you have breast cancer, it is important to see your doctor for a proper evaluation. Likewise, it is also a good idea to talk with your doctor about breast cancer prevention strategies like undergoing a regular mammogram after the age of 40. 

Sources:

American Cancer Society. (2015). What are the signs and symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer?

Karakas C. Paget's disease of the breast. J Carcinog. 2011;10:31.

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