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Those little bumps you may have noticed around your nipples actually serve a pretty interesting purpose.
Finding bumps anywhere on your body might cause you some concern, but bumps on nipples? Those usually aren’t anything to worry about. You might be skeptical of this since, at some point in your life, you’ve probably been told that any lumps and bumps on your breasts are generally worth checking out—especially if they don’t go away. And given that your nipples are a part of your breasts, it makes sense that any kind of bump you spot around them could prompt some questions.
But here’s the thing: Not every lump or bump on your breast is a sign of cancer (and there are some non-lump symptoms of breast cancer too). So what’s the deal with bumps on nipples? Keep reading to learn why you have nipple bumps, what purpose they serve, and when bumps on nipples might require a check-in with your doctor.
First, here’s a primer on your nipples.
Before we dive into the phenomenon of bumps on nipples, let’s back up a second and talk about what your nipples are and what they aren’t. While you may use the term nipple to describe the protruding nub on each breast along with the similarly pigmented ring surrounding it, that’s not quite accurate. The nipple is the part that often sticks out of the breast (not always, though — sometimes it’s pretty flat or even points inward), according to the Cleveland Clinic. The nipple is where milk comes out if you’re breastfeeding.
The areola, on the other hand, is the circle of pigmented skin around the nipple. Confusingly, both bumps on nipples and bumps on areolae are possible. For the sake of ease, we’ll refer to all of these as “bumps on nipples” throughout and get more specific where we need to.
What causes bumps on nipples?
There are a few different reasons why you might notice bumps on your nipples (or areolae).
They could be Montgomery glands: If you’re taking a peek and realising those bumps on your nipples are actually sprinkled across your areolae, you’re likely noticing your Montgomery glands. These little bumps are sebaceous glands, meaning they make oily secretions known as sebum, according to research. Sebum keeps your areolae and nipples lubricated, Dennis Holmes, M.D., a breast cancer surgeon and researcher and interim director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF.
The exact reason why this lubrication matters isn’t entirely clear, but it likely supports breastfeeding by keeping the area moisturised, Dr. Holmes says. There’s also a theory that the scent of sebum may even help stimulate a newborn’s appetite, he adds.
Everyone has Montgomery glands, Sarah P. Cate, M.D., director of the Special Surveillance and Breast Program at Mount Sinai Chelsea Downtown, tells SELF. If you have them and your best friend swears they don’t, don’t stress about it. As with every other part of your body, there’s a lot of variation in the Montgomery-gland department. Some people may have large, obvious bumps, while others have small ones that are barely visible.
Your Montgomery glands could be blocked: Just like oil glands on your face and the rest of your body, your Montgomery glands can get plugged and cause zits to form. This can result in little, red, swollen bumps. As with pimples everywhere else on your body, you shouldn’t stress about this, provided the bumps come and go. “It’s rarely of any significance,” Dr. Holmes says.
You have an ingrown hair: If you examine the bumps on your nipples and areolae, you might notice strands of hair. It can be jarring to discover this hair if you’re not expecting to see it, but it’s not a cause for concern—it’s totally normal. The thing is, wherever hair grows on your body, the possibility of ingrown hair follows. Ingrown hairs happen when strands of hair curl in on themselves and go back into the skin rather than emerging from the skin as they should, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ingrowns can look similar to pimples, but one major difference is that you can sometimes see a little loop of hair with each end embedded into the skin, the Mayo Clinic says. You may also experience pain and itching.
Can things like pregnancy change bumps on nipples?
Despite their theoretical role in breastfeeding, Montgomery glands are there whether you get pregnant or not. That said, you might notice them more when your boobs swell during pregnancy and after you give birth. Also, just like your nipples may perk up when it’s cold, a change in temperature can also make your Montgomery glands show up a little more, Dr. Holmes says.
Is there a way to treat bumps on nipples?
If what you’ve been thinking of as nipple bumps really turn out to be your Montgomery glands, then they’re a perfectly normal part of your anatomy that requires no treatment! If, however, you think you have a plugged Montgomery gland, you can try taking a hot shower or using a warm compress to try to loosen the sebum plug and work it out.
If you’ve spotted a nipple bump that looks like an ingrown hair, you can try softening the skin by applying a warm compress or exfoliating by gently washing the area with a warm washcloth, using a circular motion for several minutes, the Mayo Clinic says. Keep in mind, however, that your breasts (especially the nipples) can be extremely sensitive, so resist the urge to be too rough or pick at your skin.
Here’s when you should be concerned about bumps on nipples.
Of course, any change in bumps on or around your boobs is worth noticing and potentially bringing up with your doctor. If your nipple bumps come with other symptoms, that could be cause for concern. Here are the signs that you should call your doctor, according to Dr. Cate:
Red bumps that are warm to the touch and accompanied by fever
An areola or nipple rash that comes on suddenly
A hard mass that suddenly forms and sticks around for at least a few weeks
It could be that these symptoms are a sign of irritation from any new products you’ve introduced into your routine, Dr. Holmes explains. If you can pinpoint a change in your routine, it would be smart to eliminate those factors if possible to see if things improve, the Mayo Clinic explains.
In rare cases, breast itching or skin irritation that lingers for more than a month could be a sign of Paget’s disease of the breast, a kind of breast cancer that extends through the milk ducts and surface of the skin, Dr. Holmes says. Paget’s disease usually impacts women over the age of 50, and though it typically starts in the nipple before spreading, it is only rarely limited to the nipple alone, the Mayo Clinic explains. In addition to the symptoms we’ve already mentioned, you might experience the following symptoms, among others, per the Mayo Clinic:
The skin on or around your nipple is flaky or scaly.
You see a patch of hardening, crusty, or oozing skin.
You discover a rash that looks like eczema on your nipple, your areola, or both.
You experience itching.
You have a tingling and burning sensation.
You have a strawberry-coloured (or bloody) discharge.
You experience redness.
Your nipple appears flattened or inverted.
If you suspect that you have Paget’s disease, you should make an appointment to talk through your concerns with your doctor. Depending on what your doctor decides, you might need a biopsy, which is a procedure that involves gathering tissue to examine it under a microscope for abnormalities, the Mayo Clinic explains.
At the end of the day, lumps and bumps happen, and it’s often nothing major. But if you’re concerned about bumps on nipples, areolae, or anywhere else on your body, consider discussing what you’re seeing with your doctor.
This article originally appeared on SELF US.