Thrush is a common diagnosis when mom is experiencing nipple pain. Thrush is an overgrowth of a yeast that lives on the skin and in the gut of healthy humans. Thrush may also be referred to as candida albicans.
How Common is Nipple Thrush?
If you ask a group of moms, they’ll tell you thrush or yeast is very common. If you look at the research, a very different picture emerges. Mothers frequently complain of burning nipple pain, nipple damage, yellow or white discoloration in damaged areas of the nipple, sensations of heat or itching, and pain that radiates into the breast. These symptoms are then lumped together as thrush and treatment is prescribed often without a culture. Frequently, mom’s symptoms improve then return. Frequently, another round of anti-microbial treatment is begun.
The latest research on candida and breast yeast informs us that thrush is often the incorrect diagnosis. More women are shown to have staphylococcus aureus than candida, and not all women with one or both positive cultures have pain. In fact, only 15% of the study group experiencing nipple pain had yeast in the culture from swabbing the nipple. Even fewer, 9% had candida in the milk sample (Amir et al). Does ductal thrush even exist? Could it be something else?
Staph aureus has a white to golden color when present on the breast nipple. The common prescribed treatment for candida is miconazole or clotrimazole. Both of these drugs are effective in treating staph aureus as well as candida.
The largest common denominator in these studies on mothers experiencing nipple pain was nipple damage. Nipple damage is caused by a sub-optimal latch.
How Sub-optimal Latch is Misdiagnosed as Thrush
When a baby latches shallow to the breast and does not draw plenty of the areola into the mouth, the nipple is often exposed to inappropriate friction. The baby then must use the jaw and a clamping motion or bite to hold the nipple in the mouth. This can cause a very common condition called a vasospasm. The pressure from the poor latch causes an interruption of blood flow around the nipple. When blood flow returns to normal, a pain called a vasospam may occur. This pain can feel like shooting or burning pain in or around the nipple or deep into the breast. This pain can happen during, after, or between feeds. The solution for this pain is to fix the latch.
One contributing factor to shallow or clamp-down latch is a high arched palate in the nursing baby. These babies often have milk stains on the tongue because the tongue doesn’t rest against the hard palate and clear itself of milk. The milky tongue may look like thrush. Tongue-tie or ankyloglossia is another risk factor.
Hale TW, Bateman TL, Finkelman MA, Berens PD. The absence of Candida albicans in milk samples of women with clinical symptoms of ductal candidiasis. Breastfeed Med 2009;4:57-61.
What to Do if Your Culture Came Back Positive for Yeast
Nursing Guidelines: It’s perfectly safe and beneficial to nurse through thrush. The direct mouth-to-breast nursing is a closed system and transfers antibodies and biochemicals back and forth. Infant saliva on the nipple actually helps change the make up of the milk to meet a babies unique immune needs. The living cells in the milk help fight the infection during the nursing process. The sucking also can help relieve some of the discomfort babies experience when baby also has thrush.
Nipple Care: Your health care provider will probably provide a nipple ointment that is anti-fungal. There are many on the market that are perfectly safe for your baby’s mouth. You may want to consider saline nipple soaks to ease the discomfort and facilitate healing any damage. Using disposable breast pads can reduce staining in your nursing bras and clothing from the ointment.
Laundry and Dishes: Many moms are worried their bras, cloth breast pads, and cloth diapers are harboring yeast. Contact your cloth diaper manufacturer for instructions on how to strip your diapers. Other fabrics can be soaked in vinegar for 24 hours then laundered normally. Pacifiers and bottle nipples can be sterilized daily.
This blog post is informational only and does not serve to diagnose or treat any condition. See your healthcare provider if you suspect a nipple infection.