Are Itchy Breasts a Symptom of Inflammatory Breast Cancer?

There are plenty of other harmless causes

woman scratching itchy breast
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Many girls and women experience itchy breasts but aren't certain when this sensation is a symptom of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). This form of breast cancer is uncommon, but the disease has received an increasing amount of media attention in recent years. The heightened awareness stems from the symptoms of IBC, which are quite different from the symptoms of more common forms of breast cancer.

While itchy breasts are most often due to benign (harmless) causes, an awareness of possible serious causes can help you as you strive to advocate for your own health and wellness. How can you tell the difference between harmless and not-so-harmless causes of itchy breasts?

Itching as a Symptom of Breast Cancer

While many people associate breast cancer symptoms with breast lumps, many people aren't aware that symptoms such as breast pain, swelling, rashes, or reddening of the skin may also be signs of the disease. Even more surprising is that having itchy breasts can be a symptom of more than one type of breast cancer. 

Again, however, it's important to point out that the majority of the time, itchy breasts do not point to cancer.

When Breast Itching May Signal Cancer

In certain circumstances, breast itching should be medically evaluated as soon as possible. If breast itching is accompanied by any other breast symptoms, see a doctor. These symptoms include:

  • Reddening of the breast
  • Dimpling or pitting of the breast, resembling an orange peel
  • Breast pain
  • Breast swelling, thickening, or sudden growth of one or both breasts that is not related to puberty or weight gain
  • Breast warmth
  • One breast becoming harder
  • Swelling in an armpit (due to lymph node metastases)

These signs and symptoms are worrisome for inflammatory breast cancer, which accounts for around 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses in the United States. IBC often spreads rapidly and is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage of the disease than more common breast cancers.

In addition, it's important to see your doctor if your itching is associated with symptoms such as:

  • A red, thick, or crusted lesion of the nipple that resembles eczema
  • Pain and/or tingling in the nipple or areola
  • Nipple changes, such as a nipple becoming deformed, retracted, or inverted
  • Nipple discharge that is yellow or bloody

These signs and symptoms could be signs of another uncommon type of breast cancer called Paget's disease of the breast. In this cancer, the initial signs may easily be confused with eczema or irritation of the breast from clothing, detergents, or personal care products. Nipple changes, such as inversion, may also be a symptom of the more common forms of breast cancer. Paget's disease is responsible for 1 to 4 percent of breast cancers, with the average age of diagnosis being 57.

Benign (Harmless) Causes of Itchy Breasts

There are many benign causes of itchy breasts, and most of the time it will be one of these harmless causes you are dealing with. That said, even benign causes can reduce your quality of life and may require medical treatment.

Some of the more benign causes of itchy breasts include:

Mastitis

Mastitis is an issue that most commonly affects women who are breastfeeding, but sometimes occurs in women who are not nursing as well. Breast pain, redness, warmth, and itching may be seen with a breast infection like mastitis. Mastitis may also cause a fever and a general feeling of being unwell.

If your doctor suspects an infection as the culprit, he will treat you with antibiotics. If the symptoms do not improve within a week, further tests should be done to look for cancer, especially inflammatory breast cancer.

Dermatitis

The most common cause of itchy breasts is a dermatologic reaction to something that your skin has been exposed to recently. Common culprits include new clothes, detergents, perfumes, lotions, shampoos, and dry skin. The solution is simple: Eliminate any irritants and keep the skin moisturized.

Most women find dermatitis relief by using products that are labeled unscented and are perfume- or dye-free. Products that are made for sensitive skin usually do not contain ingredients that are common irritants. Whether you use a washing machine to wash your bras or wash them by hand, always make sure that they are thoroughly rinsed with water. Residue from the detergent can irritate the skin and cause itching.

Yeast Infection

You may be familiar with vaginal yeast infections, but did you know that the skin of the breast can also experience an overgrowth of yeast that can cause itching?

Wearing a bra that doesn't allow the skin to breathe or wearing one for many hours daily can create a dark and moist environment that allows fungi to grow and thrive. When a fungal infection affects the breast, it most likely causes itchiness under the breasts and on the sides of the breasts. You might find relief with over-the-counter antifungal creams or your doctor can prescribe a stronger antifungal medication.

To prevent yeast growth under the breasts, try wearing bras that are made of a breathable fabric, like cotton. After showering, make sure that the area under your breasts is completely dry before putting on a bra. Additionally, avoid wearing a bra at night. If you work out, wear a bra that's made of a wicking fabric that keeps sweat and moisture away from the skin. 

Post-Surgical Reaction

If you have had recent breast surgery, itching can be a normal part of recovery. Breast augmentation surgery, especially, can cause itchiness. The skin of the breast stretches to accommodate the implant and the result can be itchy breasts.

Most women find that the itching goes away within a few months after surgery. If itchiness is persistent and intolerable, you should consult your surgeon or your primary care doctor. 

Other Benign Causes

Weight gain, puberty, and pregnancy all commonly cause the breasts to become bigger, which can cause itching as the skin stretches. Although it's not common, the nickel in the underwire of bras can cause an allergic reaction in some women, as well. Nickel-free underwire bras can be purchased online at specialty retailers.

A Word From Verywell

While itchy breasts are certainly not a slam-dunk indication that you have breast cancer, it is important to see your doctor for a proper evaluation. Uncommon types of breast cancer such as inflammatory breast cancer and Paget's disease may have itching as a symptom, though often times there are additional symptoms present as well.

Benign breast conditions are a more common cause of itchy breasts and, though relatively harmless, deserve attention. Some of these require medical treatment to resolve the problem and restore your quality of life.

Having itchy breasts, even if due to a harmless cause, is a good reminder to see if you are up to date on early detection strategies such mammograms, and to practice lifestyle measures that may reduce your risk of developing breast cancer in the future.

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