WTF Is This Breast Discharge and Should I See a Doctor?
By Korin Miller | Originally Published November 20 on Self | Featuring Dr. Sherry Ross
Breast discharge leaking from your nipples can throw you for a loop. While your nipples are great and all, they’re kind of a slacker body part. Sure, you use them if and when you nurse a baby, but otherwise they’re just kind of…there. (Unless they provide you with some spectacular feelings during sex, in which case, gold star for your nips.) So when they suddenly start acting out, it can be surprising, to say the least.
There are a few different types of nipple discharge you can experience, and some are totally normal.
Nipple discharge like the milk that comes out of your breasts when you’re nursing is to be expected, obviously. Other kinds, like bloody discharge, are not. “The character of nipple discharge can be different depending on its cause,” Susan Hoover, M.D., F.A.C.S., a surgical oncologist in the Breast Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, tells SELF.
The good news: Even if you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding, discharge leaking from your breasts is very rarely a sign of breast cancer. “Nipple discharge is a symptom that we have on the list of things to get evaluated to make sure it’s not breast cancer, but it’s very rarely due to breast cancer,” Therese Bartholomew Bevers, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., a professor of clinical cancer prevention and medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center and prevention outreach programs at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, tells SELF. But, listen, if your nipple randomly starts leaking, it’s worth bringing up to your doctor—especially if it happens spontaneously from one breast.
In general, there are four different types of breast discharge you may experience, Dr. Hoover says. Keep in mind, though, that this is just one one factor doctors take into account when determining what’s causing the leakage. With that said, here’s what experts want you to know about different types of breast discharge.
1. Milky discharge
Milky discharge looks like watered-down cow’s milk, and it can be caused by pregnancy, breast infections, and having fibrocystic breasts, Sherry A. Ross, M.D., a women’s health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., tells SELF. Having fibrocystic breasts means your boobs have a lumpy or rope-like texture, and it’s normal, not anything to worry about.
Milky discharge usually comes from both breasts and is caused by a rise in the hormone prolactin, a hormone that tells the breasts to produce milk, Dr. Hoover says. While it’s super normal during pregnancy and breastfeeding, it can also be caused when a benign growth or tumor in the pituitary gland causes an overproduction of prolactin, Dr. Hoover says. If your breasts start leaking this kind of discharge and you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding, you should check in with a medical professional to see what’s going on.
2. Bloody discharge
Bloody discharge is just that: actual blood that’s coming out of your nipples, Dr. Bevers says. If you experience it, it will usually come from one duct on the nipple surface, Dr. Hoover says.
Bloody discharge can be the sign of a benign growth called an intraductal papilloma that causes irritation and inflammation within the breast duct, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. It usually only happens in one nipple. More rarely, discharge can also be a sign of a cancerous tumor (the tumor itself can produce blood) or ductal carcinoma in situ. This happens when cancer cells appear in the the milk ducts but haven’t spread to other breast tissue, and it’s often called the earliest form of breast cancer, Dr. Bevers says. If you’re experiencing bloody nipple discharge, you should check in with your doctor for evaluation.
3. Green-brown discharge
Having green-brown stuff come out of your nipples sounds freaky, but it’s not typically a sign of anything serious, Dr. Hoover says. Instead, it could be a sign of fibrocystic breast changes. Your doctor can help you determine if the nipple leakage you’re experiencing is due to having fibrocystic breasts, which is a good thing to know in general so every random lump and bump doesn’t freak you out.
It can also be due to mammary duct ectasia, which happens when a milk duct shortens, its walls thicken, and the duct fills with fluid, according to the Mayo Clinic. This sometimes resolves on its own, but you may also need antibiotics.
4. Clear-ish discharge
This usually ranges in color from clear to clear-ish with a yellowy tinge, and it can be due to a few things. If you’re pregnant, it may be colostrum, which is an antibody-rich secretion that women typically produce during late pregnancy and right after they give birth. If you’re not, this is usually a sign of an intraductal papilloma, Dr. Bevers says. But it could also be due to any number of things we mentioned above, including fibrocystic breast changes, mammary duct ectasia, and (rarely) ductal carcinoma in situ.
So, to reiterate, breast discharge isn’t automatically something to worry about, but it might be a sign to see your doctor.
Bizarrely, you can even have nipple discharge for no apparent reason at all. Dr. Bevers once had a patient who had bloody discharge and, even though the medical team ran several diagnostic tests, they couldn’t find anything wrong with the patient. Eventually, the breast discharge just stopped. “It was real—I saw it—but I have no idea what caused it,” Dr. Bevers says. In those (exceedingly rare) cases, doctors will simply keep an eye on you to see if anything develops in the future.
Bottom line: If you have nipple discharge and you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding, flag it for your doctor. While breast discharge is more likely to be a sign of an infection, hormonal fluctuations, or other benign health issues, it’s always better to be safe.