Are Your Nipples Normal?

Just as breasts come in all shapes and sizes, women have significant variations in the appearance of their nipples. Some face front, while others point sideways. Some are as small as pennies, while others are bigger than a silver dollar. Many women have a mismatched pair, for instance, maybe one nipple is higher than the other.

But most women—90 percent—have what are known as common nipples, which are nipples that protrude at rest and, because they're loaded with nerve endings, become erect due to stimuli like cold, touch, and sexual activity. The remaining 10 percent of women have flat or inverted nipples.

Here's the scoop on these common nipple variations, as well as important info to help you recognize when your nipples may be signaling that something's wrong with your breasts or general health.

About five percent 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 if you breastfeed.

Inverted Nipples

Inverted nipples are those that are withdrawn (retracted inward) below the surface of the skin and lack the normal protrusion. Nipple inversion is a condition you're born with. It usually occurs when breast tissue adheres tightly to the base of the nipple, enough to prevent it from sticking out, or due to shortening of the milk ducts themselves, which pass through the breast and open into the top of the nipples.

In mild cases, the nipples are occasionally inverted, but will spontaneously become erect with stimulation. In more severe cases, the nipple cannot be made to protrude manually.

If you've had them all your life, inverted nipples are usually harmless, though they can sometimes make breastfeeding more difficult. If they occur later in life or are a change from your normal protruding nipples (known as "acquired nipple retraction"), they can sometimes be a sign of a medical condition like breast cancer and should be checked out by your doctor. See below for more information on acquired nipple retraction.

Nipple sensitivity varies from person to person, but inverted nipples should be as sensitive as nipples that point outward.

Some women find the appearance of inverted nipples very distressing. There are several options for de-inverting nipples. For mild inversion, inverted nipples can sometimes be coaxed out of hiding with some stimulation; various devices for self-retraction as well as vacuum approaches have been used. The results of these treatments, however, are usually 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 considering this, find a plastic surgeon who has experience in treating nipple inversion. Ask if you can see any 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, the ring of pigmented skin surrounding the nipple, and the skin on the rest of your breast.

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. True flat nipples don't respond to cold or arousal. However, even if you have nipples that remain flat all the time, they will often start to protrude outward during your pregnancy, so they don't usually interfere with breastfeeding.

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: A Changed Position

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.

See your doctor if you notice nipple retraction, especially if only one nipple is affected. This can be an early sign of cancer and should be investigated.

A mammogram or breast ultrasound will help determine the cause of the nipple change and enable you to get the proper treatment.

Wondering About 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 lasering.

That said, if the hair growth is excessive or you're also experiencing hair growth in other areas (for instance, on your face) or you also have other symptoms like irregular periods, acne, and obesity, see your doctor. 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.

A Word From Verywell

Nipples, like the rest of our bodies, change as we grow and age. It's important for women to be familiar with their own nipples, so they understand what's normal and can report changes. Though breast cancer is often not associated with any nipple changes, it's important to tell your doctor if you notice physical changes, such as a nipple turned permanently 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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