In this Ask an Expert, we ask Dana C., professional IBCLC and instructor for our Breastfeeding 101 course, about diagnosing and treating a clogged milk duct. Don’t forget to check out our FREE breastfeeding course, as you prepare for your breastfeeding journey. 

Question: I think I have a clogged milk duct — how can I be sure, and how can I treat it? 

First of all, try not to panic. Clogged milk ducts —sometimes referred to as blocked or plugged ducts—  are a pretty common problem for breastfeeding moms, and often there are ways to resolve the problem fairly quickly at home.  

Let’s go over what a clogged milk duct is and what symptoms you might experience if you have one. A clogged milk duct is an area of the breast where the milk is obstructed and not flowing normally. Symptoms of a clog can include: 

• A tender or hard spot in the breast that doesn’t resolve after nursing or pumping.
• The breast may be warm to the touch.
• A temporary decrease in milk output from that breast. Don’t worry, it should return once the clog is resolved. 
• A milk blister or “bleb” on the tip of the nipple.

Please note: If you have a fever, red streaking on the breast, or start feeling like you have the
flu, call your healthcare provider. This could mean the clogged duct has developed into mastitis, and that’s something you may not be able to treat on your own. Again, in this case reach out to your health care provider.

Once you’ve decided you do, indeed, have a clogged milk duct, follow these steps to resolve it: 

1. Begin treatment as soon as possible. 
If what you have is indeed a clogged duct, address it right away. If left untreated, clogged ducts can lead to mastitis (a breast infection). You don’t want to ignore it and hope it goes away on its own.

2. Use cold compresses to help reduce inflammation and reduce pain. 
Apply these after nursing or pumping, or more often, if desired. A trick of the trade: frozen veggies like a bag of corn or peas work well because they mold to the breast.

3. Treat your pain and swelling.
In addition to ice packs, take ibuprofen to help ease discomfort and reduce inflammation. Acetaminophen can also be used to reduce pain.  

4. Gently massage the breast. 
Gently massage the tender area. Avoid deep massage that could further irritate or inflame the breast. Research shows that very light sweeping of the skin versus deep tissue massage can be helpful to reduce pain and enhance lymphatic drainage.

5. Continue to nurse or pump according to your normal routine.  
Do not over-empty your breasts in an effort to remove the clog, but continue to feed or pump as usual. Remember, milk production is based on supply and demand, so adding any additional feeds or pumping may create an oversupply on the affected breast and perpetuate the issue. Try and stay on (or close to) your regular schedule. 

Nursing is a more effective way to empty your breasts than pumping. However, if nursing is too painful for whatever reason, or if you are separated from your baby or exclusively pumping, you can of course pump.

6.  Continue to Feed with Both Breasts
Make sure you’re still using both breasts to feed as you typically do.

7.  Do your best to prevent another clogged milk duct. 
Moving forward, try and catch clogs early by:

  • Frequently checking for lumps and tender spots while nursing, pumping, or showering.
  • Avoiding bras that are too tight or bras with underwires.  
  • Keeping your breasts comfortable. Don’t skip a nursing or pumping session if you can help it. 
    • Remember, you can always hand express if you need relief and can’t nurse or pump.
  • If you find you are battling recurring clogs, consult with a lactation expert to help get to/address the underlying issue. Some experts suggest sunflower lecithin and probiotics to help prevent recurrent clogs.  However, just like with all herbal supplements and medications, it’s important to check in with your healthcare provider first to confirm this supplement is appropriate for you.

You’ll know the clogged milk duct is resolved once you feel better — no pressure, pain, etc. If the clog persists for more than a few days, or if you have a fever or start feeling like you have the flu, call your healthcare provider. This could mean the clogged duct has already developed into mastitis (a breast infection) and that’s something you may not be able to treat on your own. For more guidance on how to treat clogged ducts, including how to prevent them in the first place, watch our 100% FREE online class Breastfeeding 101: From Prenatal Prep to Pumping.