The biological purpose of female nipples is to feed children; they act as the conduit for breast milk to be passed from mother to infant. But if and when there are no babies involved, nipples just kind of…hang out on your chest, waiting to be utilized. (They’re also one helluva underrated erogenous zone, FWIW.) And they’re pretty strange in their own right: they can get hard, change colors, and feel sore or sensitive.
Nipples are weird but great; to nip any confusion in the bud (see what I did there?) about their idiosyncracies, we talked to Heather Irobunda, MD, an OB/GYN in New York City, to share with us some of the most pressing facts about nipples, while clearing up some common misconceptions along the way. Here’s what she says are some of the most common questions she hears about the small dots on your chest.
Keep reading for 5 facts about nipples to clear up any confusion you might have about yours:
1. Why do nipples change color?
First of all, nipples naturally differ in colors based on the person and their unique skin tone, which is affected by the amount of melanin (natural pigment produced by skin cells) they have. “The more melanin that you have in the area of your nipples, the darker they will be,” says Dr. Irobunda. Dr. Heather Irobunda, MD, an OB-GYN in New York City.
However, your baseline nipple color can also change over the course of your life. “They typically get darker as you get older, and pigment can also be affected by hormones,” she says. For example, she says that a person’s nipples and areolas (the area surrounding the nipple) can get darker during pregnancy thanks to surging hormone levels. “Many times, women will come to me at many stages in life, especially when they are pregnant or postpartum, very concerned that their nipples have become dark and would like to know if there is anything that can be done to get them back to a lighter color,” she says.
There aren’t any known ways to change the color of the nipple. But if it’s darker, don’t fret—it’s generally perfectly healthy. “Oftentimes, when nipple color changes, it may stay that new color. If your nipples became darker during pregnancy, they may return to their previous color, but it may take a while for them to do so,” Dr. Irobunda says.
Don’t bother with topicals that promise to make them lighter. “Any types of creams that you may be tempted to use to lighten your nipples will not end with the desired outcome because these creams may not be able to address the reason why your nipples changed color in the first place,” she says. There is also the potential risk of irritating the sensitive skin in that area.
“The only time that I would be concerned about the change in nipple color is if it is associated with any pain,” she says. If there is any pain or if you’re concerned, book an appointment with your OB/GYN for a check-up.
2. Why do nipples get sore?
Nipples can get sore for a variety of different reasons. If you have just had a baby, for example, you might experience tenderness during breastfeeding. “If a woman decides to breastfeed, she may notice that her nipples may become irritated when she initially starts. This is due to the friction that is caused initially when a baby starts to breastfeed,” Dr. Irobunda says. Although these tiny humans may not seem to be very strong, the suction that their mouths can create is pretty impressive. “This constant friction and suction on the nipple can cause chafing, cracking, itching, or soreness of the nipple,” she says. Ouch.
The first thing a breastfeeding mom should do if she notices these changes to the nipple is make sure her new baby is latched to her nipple correctly. There are also over the counter creams that can be found at most drugstores that can help soothe irritated nipples. But if these symptoms become severe, seek help from your doctor for more guidance and support. “There are lactation consultants that specialize in helping new moms get this right to reduce the amount of irritation she experiences,” Dr. Irobunda adds.
Outside of pregnancy and breastfeeding, a person can also experience sore nipples during their menstrual cycle. This is called cyclical mastalgia, and it can occur during ovulation. (A person’s breasts in general are more sensitive during the pre-menstrual phase…thanks, hormones.) It’s likely linked to hormonal shifts, although experts aren’t sure exactly which hormones are to blame or why people can experience soreness in one breast and not the other during.
3. What’s the deal with these bumps on my nipples?
Here’s another fact about nipples: There are two distinct types of bumps that naturally occur on them. The bumps on the protruding part of the nipples are the openings to milk ducts. These release milk and colostrum (nutritious precursor to breastmilk produced in the immediate days after giving birth).
The small raised bumps on the areola (again, the area surrounding the nipple itself) are called Montgomery glands. These glands have fluid in them that helps provide lubrication during breastfeeding, Dr. Irobunda says. They grow and become more prominent during pregnancy to prepare the body for breastfeeding. “Sometimes these bumps may get larger if they get blocked but if they do there’s no need to be concerned,” she says.
4. Why do nipples change in size?
Like nipple color, nipples come in a variety of sizes that depends on the unique individual. However, nipples get larger when a person is pregnant because of the increased amounts of the hormones estrogen and progesterone—again super normal. These hormones cause the nipples and the areola to grow. “It’s thought that the nipples grow to make it easier for a baby to locate the nipple for breastfeeding,” Dr. Irobunda says.
5. Is it bad that my nipples point in instead of out?
When your nipples point inward instead of outward, they are called inverted nipples. “Many women are born with nipples like this and there is nothing concerning about them,” says Dr. Irobunda. “The reason why these nipples point inward is because nipples have muscles that make them poke out and some people are not born with those muscles that keep them poked out.”
Very rarely, some women may notice that their nipples are starting to turn inward. “This change in the nipple can be associated with inflammation, surgery performed on the breast, or even cancer,” she says. However, this is super rare, but if you notice this, see your OB/GYN for a visit to rule out anything more serious.
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