As any breastfeeding mama can tell you, mastitis is one of the nastiest things to deal with. These infections (which stem from a clogged milk duct) can come on quickly, bringing with them raging fevers and achy, fluish feelings, as well as acute soreness and tenderness in the breast, particularly around the area of the clogged duct.
The common solution to mastitis (at least, for most doctors and even some midwives) is a strong dose of good ol' antibiotics. Sure to clear up the angry bacteria around the site of infection, antibiotics will also do a (really bad) number on your overall digestive health and immune system function.
I have no problem with the use of antibiotics in truly necessary situations and am thankful to live in a time when we have emergency, life-saving medical interventions such as these. But, overuse of antibiotics is a raging problem in our culture and often prescribed at the drop of a hat, without much thought to the broader and long-term consequences.
Nursing my three babies over the years, I've had my share of both clogged ducts and mastitis infections. They are definitely uncomfortable and inconvenient and, as with all infections, can grow much more seriously if left to fester. Mastitis is not something to be dealt with lightly, and yet there are definitely ways to treat it rapidly and thoroughly, but without the use of antibiotics.
First... a Few Words on Prevention
One of the best ways to treat mastitis is to not allow it to develop in the first place. Here are some important things to keep in mind for prevention's sake:
Switch sides often and nurse thoroughly.
Try to make a point of switching which breast you start nursing with, and which one you finish with. By alternating sides like this, you ensure that both sides receive as close to equal sucking time as possible, which helps to keep them well drained. Also, allow baby to nurse as long as needed on a breast before switching. Baby will get all of the rich, creamy hindmilk (full of good fats), and you will not be left with excess milk that can cause clogging issues to begin with.
Don't go too long between feeds.
By letting your baby nurse on demand, or on a flexible but fairly routine schedule, your body will adjust to make just the right amount of milk that baby requires. Allowing longer stretches than usual causes your breasts to become more engorged (which certainly isn't comfortable anyways), and can contribute to ducts becoming plugged. If you must be away from your baby, bring a pump or at least take a few moments to hand-express some milk into a sink.
Image by wintson & michelle
At the First Sign of Trouble
These 3 steps are among the most important things that you do can do, to treat an infection in the very early stages and prevent it from every becoming full blown.
While at a blogging conference this past summer, I could feel that less frequent nursing was causing some milk buildup, and I began to experience that familiar redness/soreness and could feel a lump where a duct was becoming blocked. By treating it with the steps below, within less than 12 hours the lump and soreness were gone and I had managed to sidestep an infection entirely!
1. Nurse, nurse, nurse. Do not shy away from nursing (even if it is somewhat painful). If you begin to feel a lump building up or experience some tenderness, put your baby to the breast as often as you can. The more you can nurse, the faster it will begin to clear up.
2. Massage. I feel as silly doing it as I do talking about it, but it really, truly works. Using two or three fingers, find the spot that feels hard or sore, and gently rub in a circular motion. Switch now and then from clockwise to counter-clockwise, and try moving your fingers slightly to massage from different angles. This helps to release the milk that has built up and is clogging the duct.
Massage should also be used while nursing. Nurse the baby on the side with the plugged duct, and as you do so, use your finger tips to massage in strokes that go down towards the nipple. Change angles often, and continue to do so as long as you can stand it. Do this every single time you nurse on that side.
3. Apply Heat. Applying heat, whether it be by taking a long, hot shower or simply by resting with a hot cloth or compress on your chest will make a huge difference. Combining massage with heat makes a very effective combination.
4. Rest. I'm bad for this myself, as I find it hard to actually lay down and rest or nap when I need to, but a breast infection is often a sign of pushing yourself too hard. Resting each time you nurse your baby, or taking naps as you are able to, will help speed recovery.
Image by kanegan
When It Is Time for Stronger Measures
Most infections can be avoided by taking the above action steps, but sometimes an infection gains ground quickly and these steps alone are not enough. The presence of a fever and/or achiness that resembles the flu both indicate that the site has become infected.
There are many natural ways to encourage the body to fight off mastitis infections. Here are a few of them:
Things to take orally
Garlic: My top choice for a natural "antibiotic", raw garlic is very effective in stimulating the immune system and having a strong antibacterial effect against infections. It does need to be raw to get the benefit from it. Try eating 2-5 cloves per day, as much as you can handle. Read more on garlic's properties and uses here.
Poke Root: This herb has been long used as a treatment for sickness and pain, including specific use for breast pain by Native American Indians. It has antibiotic properties and stimulates the lymph system, for better drainage and to help clear out an infection. It can be used in a tincture form, but no more than 2 drops per day, as it is quite strong.
Echinacea: Another immune booster, echinacea root tincture is effective in mastitis treatment. In Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Years, Susan Weed recommends a dose of a 1/2 drop for every pound of body weight (so a 130 lb woman would take 65 drops). According to Kellymom.com, this dose can be taken up to 3-5 times per day. Susan Weed says even up to 12 times per day is fine and may be effective.
Image by thedeliciouslife
Things to use externally
Cabbage leaves: You have probably heard of this remedy for engorgement when your milk first comes, but it is also an effective treatment for infection. It is particularly effective when used at the first signs of trouble, but will continue to help once an infection is underway.
Place a cool cabbage leaf inside your bra, directly against your breast. Leave it for an hour or two, then remove. You can do this multiple times throughout the day, but don't leave it on continually as it could eventually affect milk supply (although using it for a couple of days on and off will have no adverse effects).
Poultice/Compress: I mentioned above the use of heat, and any hot compress applied to the breast will be helpful. The addition of a herbal poultice will also help to encourage healing of the infection. A few herbs to consider: Comfrey, Calendula, Rosemary, Dandelion, Marshmallow root. Apply to the skin (with a hot compress or cloth is best) for 5-10 minutes, as many as 3 to 6 times a day. Take the opportunity to do this while you are resting-- see, there's that "R" word again!
Resources for Mastitis
Natural Remedies for Problems in Breastfeeding, Part 2 by Susan. S. Weed @ StorkNet (I thought this article was the most helpful)
Mastitis Treatment @ Family Herbal Remedies