There could be several reasons why you're experiencing sensitive nipples, ranging from hormonal changes to chafing. I asked gynecologists Mary Jane Minkin, MD and Alyssa Dweck, MD, plus dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, to break it down.
"Nipple sensitivity can be related to superficial skin irritation, like an eczema sort of process, or it may be related to underlying breast sensitivity," Dr. Minkin says. For example, she says that breasts (and thereby nipples) can become more sensitive during various points of the menstrual cycle as your hormones fluctuate. She says people who have hormonal sensitivity will notice that they're feeling it in both nipples, not just one, and that it gets "worse a few days premenstrually and fully resolved after flow." (There's a reason why breast tenderness is a common PMS symptom!)"Early pregnancy can cause breast sensitivity, at times limited to or most notable in the nipples," Dr. Dweck adds.
Various issues related to pregnancy and nursing can also lead to nipple sensitivity. Nipples can get dry and chapped during nursing without proper care, which can make them more sensitive and sore. On the more extreme end, mastitis—an infection of breast tissue often caused by clogged milk ducts—can also lead to sensitive and even painful nipples.
There's also the reality of nipple genetics (yes, really) at play. "Anatomic variants in nipple shape and size might be genetic and in some cases—for example, in those with larger nipples—might have more sensitivity due to chafing from bras and fabric," Dr. Dweck says. External nipple irritants include sports bras (especially if sweaty) along with polyester and rayon fabrics, Dr. Gohara says.
In very rare cases, nipple sensitivity and pain can be a symptom of breast cancer. Dr. Dweck recommends seeing your OB/GYN ASAP if you experience persistent issues or bloody nipple discharge.
If the thought of putting on a T-shirt makes you want to cry, not just because of quarantine but because your nipples recoil from the touch of fabric, Dr. Gohara recommends washing your nipples with a gentle cleanser and applying some Vaseline Petroleum Jelly ($10 for four), which "helps the skin barrier." She also recommends applying Avene Cicalfate Skin Recovery Lotion ($32) because it's moisturizing and contains anti-inflammatory ingredients. If your nips are really sensitive and irritated, she recommends a diaper rash cream like Balmex ($13) or Desitin ($13).
Dr. Dweck recommends soaking your nipples in warm water, and adds that you can apply an antibiotic ointment or a product with moisturizing ingredients like lanolin. However, if you have a condition like nipple eczema or psoriasis that's causing sensitivity, she says you should talk to a doctor to get a prescription steroid cream. Dr. Minkin adds that reducing caffeine intake can help, though with the caveat that evidence is mostly anecdotal.
And with that, I've reached my monthly quota for saying the word nipple (you know, outside of sexting because, again, quarantining alone).
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