Types of Nipples

Normal Variations and What May Be Cause for Concern

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Just as breasts come in all shapes and sizes, there are different types of nipples. Most people (90%) have what are known as common nipples. This means the nipples stick out slightly when at rest. Because they're loaded with nerve endings, the nipples become erect due to stimuli like cold, touch, and sexual activity.

In the other 10%, the nipples are flat or inverted. There are also differences within the nipple types. Some face forward. Others point sideways. Many people have nipples that aren't alike.

Knowing this may come as a relief if you've worried that your nipples are not "normal." That said, some changes may be cause for concern.

This article looks at the differences among nipple types and what causes them. It also explores why nipple changes may be a sign of something more serious that you need to get checked out.

nipple variations
Verywell / JR Bee

Common Nipples

Even among nipples thought "common," there are differences from one person to the next. Nipples stick out from the areola that surrounds them, but some do so more than others. Some may be "puffy," with an areola that rounds outward.

All nipples have small bumps on the areola called Montgomery glands, or areolar glands. These glands produce lipoid fluid, which helps to keep the entire areola and nipple area moist and smooth.

Beyond differences in size, nipples can also vary in color. The areola can range from very pale to a deep brown, depending on your skin color. It's common for the area to get darker during pregnancy.

About 1% to 5% of people have an extra nipple or nipples, which are known as supernumerary nipples. These extra nipples don't cause any problems, though they may lactate (release milk) if you breastfeed.

Inverted Nipples

Inverted nipples do not stick out the way common nipples do. Instead, they are tucked in below the surface of the skin. Nipple inversion is a condition you're born with.

This usually happens when breast tissue holds tightly to the base of the nipple, enough to prevent it from sticking out. It also may be because of shortening in the milk ducts themselves; these ducts pass through the breast and open into the top of the nipples.

Nipple sensitivity varies from person to person, but inverted nipples should be as sensitive as nipples that point outward. In some cases, the nipples are inverted most of the time but they will become erect with stimulation. In others, the nipples won't pop out at all.

If you've had them all your life, inverted nipples are usually harmless, though they can sometimes make breastfeeding more difficult.

If inverted nipples occur later in life, or are a change from your normal protruding nipples, this is known as acquired nipple retraction. This may be a sign of a medical condition like breast cancer and should be checked out by your healthcare provider.

Some women find inverted nipples upsetting because of how they look. There are some options for reversing the direction of these nipples.

For mild inversion, some self-retraction devices and vacuum approaches have been used. The results, however, are often modest at best and are not usually a long-term solution.

Plastic surgery can be done to reverse inverted nipples. A number of different procedures have been used. If you're thinking about this, find a plastic surgeon who has experience in treating nipple inversion.

Ask if you can see before-and-after pictures of other women who've had the procedure done. You may want to get a second opinion as well.

Flat Nipples

Flat nipples are not raised. They appear to lay even with the areola, and with the skin on the rest of your breast. They don't respond to cold or arousal.

Many women have nipples that appear flat most of the time, but then become erect when they're exposed to cold temperature or sexual stimulation. These are not truly flat nipples.

Women with flat nipples who plan to breastfeed should not have any issues, as their nipples will likely protrude outward during pregnancy. If women with flat nipples don't like how they look, they can try the same remedies that are used to reverse inverted nipples.

Retracted Nipples

When your nipple starts out as raised tissue but begins to pull inward, change position, or fold itself into a narrow crease, it's called an acquired retracted nipple. A retracted nipple, unlike an inverted nipple, will not come back out when stimulated.

Nipple retraction may be caused by aging, duct ectasia (when milk ducts become swollen and clogged), or breast cancer. A mammogram. breast ultrasound, or breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will help to diagnose the cause of the nipple change and guide your treatment.

Hairy Nipples

There are hair follicles surrounding your nipples, so it's normal to have at least a little hair around them. And yes, it's safe to remove unwanted hair by tweezing, waxing, shaving, or getting laser treatments.

If there is a lot of hair growth, you're also seeing hair growth in other areas like your face, or you also have other symptoms like irregular periods, acne, and obesity, see your healthcare provider.

These can be signs of an underlying problem like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common medical condition caused by hormonal imbalance, or Cushing's syndrome, a disorder that occurs when the body is exposed to too much of the stress hormone cortisol.

Summary

Most people have "common" nipples that stick out, although their appearance can vary widely. Others may have flat or even inverted nipples that are tucked below the skin.

In most cases, this is perfectly normal. When nipples change, though, it can be an early sign of cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider if you see new nipple inversion or retraction, especially if it's only one nipple that changes. 

A Word From Verywell

Nipples, like the rest of our bodies, change as we grow and age. It's important that you are familiar with your nipples, so you have a sense of what's normal for you and can report changes. It's easy to remember to check for changes in your nipples when doing a monthly breast self-examination.

It's important to tell your healthcare provider if you see physical changes, such as a nipple turned inward or a sore in the nipple area. Keep an eye out, too, for discharge that occurs suddenly, is bloody, or occurs in only one nipple. These can be signs of breast cancer.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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