SINGAPORE - Breast swelling occurs to some degree in nearly all women who experience the menstrual cycle, said Dr Georgette Chan, a breast surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.
The surge in hormones that brings on menstruation also results in fluid retention, which then causes the breasts to be engorged with fluid.
Dr Chan said this commonly occurs a week before a woman's period and resolves spontaneously by day three or four of the menstruation.
The effect of hormonal changes during menstruation becomes stronger over the years, so breast swelling tends to be more pronounced in women in their late 30s and 40s, she said.
New mothers may also experience breast swelling.
After childbirth, the breasts begin producing greater quantities of milk.
If breastfeeding mothers are not able to nurse their babies or empty their breasts of milk regularly, the milk ducts in the breasts become blocked and, so, the breasts become engorged and swollen, Dr Chan said.
If the woman develops cracked nipples due to the improper positioning of the baby during nursing, infections can occur in the breasts.
Most often, bacteria enters through the cracked nipples to cause an infection in the milk ducts, which then leads to breast swelling.
Yet another cause of breast swelling is inflammatory breast cancer, a rare but aggressive type of breast cancer that is termed inflammatory because the breast often looks swollen and red.
Dr Chan said the skin of the breast affected by this kind of cancer is characterised by a rough, orange peel-like appearance, which extends all the way to the armpits. Sometimes, a lump can also be felt in the affected breast.
Peppermint leaves have not been scientifically proven to resolve breast swelling.
Another unproven remedy for breast swelling is the use of cold cabbage leaves, though these leaves contain compounds called isothiocyanates, which are believed to improve blood flow and, hence, relieve obstruction in the milk ducts.
Dr Chan cautioned there have been reports that the use of cabbage leaves may affect milk production.
Women with cracked nipples can apply lanolin cream to soothe them, she advised.
Most importantly, they should engage a lactation consultant who can teach them proper breastfeeding techniques, she added.
Women should recognise that breast swelling which persists after their menstruation has ended, or breast pain so severe that painkillers are needed, warrant a trip to the doctor.
In general, women who seek to alleviate the severity of breast swelling should avoid caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, black tea and cola, which promote water retention in the body, Dr Chan said.
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