Apr 25, 2023 • 8 min read

Clogged Milk Duct: Symptoms, Causes, & How to Clear

Medically Reviewed by Kim Langdon, MD on 04.25.23
  • Facebook
  • Linkedin
  • Twitter
  • Message

Nursing your baby is the most natural thing on earth, but it’s not always easy. Things come up that challenge even the most experienced moms.

Plugged milk ducts, for example, are a common issue among nursing moms. They affect as many as 5% of breastfeeding women.

Clogged milk ducts or mammary ducts happen when one of the channels leading from the mammary glands in the breast to the outside becomes blocked. When this happens, you may notice an isolated lump in your breast that comes on suddenly, breast pain, or warmth of the affected breast. If untreated, you could develop a painful infection of the breast called mastitis.

You can avoid complications and additional discomfort by treating it as soon as you notice the problem. Clogged milk ducts are easy to treat with things like heat, using a breast pump, massage, and other treatments to clear up the problem relatively quickly.

This guide will go over the symptoms of clogged milk ducts, how you can clear them, and when to seek medical attention. You’ll learn how they happen so you can prevent them, if possible, and how a lactation consultant can help.

Symptoms of a clogged milk duct

Feeding your baby by breastfeeding is not something that always comes with a manual. Many women get started and then find themselves frustrated by issues that come up unexpectedly.

Even if you do everything right, you may still develop a clogged milk duct. Certain signs indicate you have a blocked mammary duct:

  • Isolated swollen lump in the affected breast. The area where the clogged duct forms will collect small amounts of milk within the duct. You can feel the lump when you are more engorged, but it seems to disappear or shrink after pumping or nursing. The lump may be painful or could just feel like an ache.
  • Breast warmth. The area with the blockage will feel warm to the touch. Larger areas of the breast or the whole breast may be warm to the touch when you have an area of blockage that is getting inflamed. While inflammation does not necessarily mean you have an infection, it may feel similar. Redness is possible but less likely if the duct is newly blocked.
  • Pain during the letdown reflex. When you have a sluggish milk duct (or one that is entirely blocked), you may experience pain in the affected breast that comes on when milk fills the breast during the letdown reflex. It will lessen as you nurse on that side and empty the breast.
  • Breast discomfort during nursing that passes after you feed. The pain from a blocked duct will often be lessened by nursing. Just as the letdown reflex increases breast discomfort, emptying your breast will reduce it.
  • Discoloration of an area of the breast. The clogged area may look bruised or have a blush in coloration from excess inflammation in the affected area.

9 ways to clear a clogged milk duct

There are ways to clear a clogged milk duct once it occurs. Even if you aren’t sure the duct is blocked, using some local treatments and other remedies will not harm you or your baby and may help improve your symptoms.

Here are 9 ways to clear a clogged milk duct:

1. Apply warm compresses to the affected area

When you add heat by applying warm compresses to the area, the area will have better circulation, and the clotted milk, if any, will soften, allowing the warmer milk to eject more easily.

Do not use a heating pad because you can get burned. Compresses moistened with warm water are just the right temperature for this remedy.

2. Perform breast massages

The breast can be massaged to release the blocked duct. When you massage the duct, remember that the milk-producing glands are more often in the outer regions of the breast.

Massage to relieve a blocked duct is best done by placing the flat of your hand on the outer aspect of your breast and massaging toward the nipple. This pushes the blocked milk toward the nipple so it can be better ejected.

3. Bathe in warm Epsom salt baths

Epsom salts are safe while breastfeeding and help loosen skin and debris that may be blocking the duct.

An entire bath in Epsom salts is warm and comforting; however, you can bathe just your breast in the salt solution over a large bowl if you lack time to bathe entirely.

4. Completely empty the breast

If you can empty the breast entirely by hand expressing your breast, nursing, or using a pump, you may reduce the pressure inside the breast enough to allow the duct to empty as well. When you hand express your breast, you can put extra pressure on the area that needs to be drained.

5. Drink extra fluids

When you drink extra fluids, your breast milk will be thin, and your breasts will empty more easily when you nurse. Thick breastmilk, on the other hand, comes from not drinking enough.

You can reduce the chances of getting a clogged milk duct, or correct the problem once it occurs, by drinking more water, juices, or milk.

>> Learn more: Drinks that increase breast milk supply

6. Switch up nursing positions

Nursing positions matter in preventing and treating clogged milk ducts. Your baby should latch on well regardless of the position you choose.

If you normally nurse with your baby cradled in your arms, you can try the football hold to drain a different part of the breast.

A common method of clearing a blocked duct is to nurse on your hands and knees with the baby beneath you. This uses gravity to better relieve the pressure as the baby nurses.

7. Wear loose-fitting clothing

Loose-fitting clothing will take the pressure off the breast and allow your breasts to fill and drain more easily.

You will also allow the last bit of milk to drain from the nipples, reducing the chances of a buildup of milk in the ducts. Loose clothing will also allow the breasts to make the right amount of milk between feedings.

8. Apply olive oil

Olive oil is soothing to the breast and can be used to massage it. Olive oil also has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help soothe the area around the clogged duct. It is okay to put it on the nipple to remove debris or dried skin over the nipple that could clog your ducts.

9. Consider medical treatments

You can undergo physical therapy to have the breast massaged by a professional who understands the problem and how to manage it. Some healthcare providers treat clogged ducts by applying ultrasound to the breast.

Ultrasound is warming and can help remove the blockage of the milk duct in ways similar to applying localized heat.

Breastfeeding tips to avoid clogged milk ducts

To breastfeed in ways that reduce the risk of developing a clogged milk duct, there are a few things you can do:

  • Allow the breast to completely drain. Allow the baby to latch on well and let her nurse until the breast feels completely drained. If you don’t let your baby latch on well, you may have breast pain that inhibits the ability to completely nurse on that side.
  • Take your time while nursing. Allow 15 to 30 minutes to breastfeed completely.
  • Avoid skipping feedings. Don’t skip feedings, but if you must, use a breast pump to empty your breasts between feedings.
  • Avoid sudden feeding schedule changes. Gradually change feeding schedules when weaning or changing your nursing schedule. If you currently have an inconsistent feeding schedule, scheduling regular times to breastfeed is one of the best ways to increase milk supply fast.
  • Avoid Haaka breast pumps. Don’t use a Haakaa breast pump if you are prone to clogged breasts because it can lead to an oversupply of milk, engorgement, and clogged ducts.
  • Stay hydrated. Remain hydrated to keep the milk from being too thick or stagnant.

When to seek medical attention for a clogged milk duct

A clogged milk duct may be uncomfortable but, if it is not adequately treated, you can develop inflammation and infection of the breast—a condition called mastitis. Mastitis can be very uncomfortable and is potentially serious if not treated with antibiotics to kill the bacteria within the breast.

Mastitis shares some of the same symptoms of a clogged milk duct but has additional signs indicating an infection:

  • Fever and chills
  • Severe pain in the breast
  • Expanding redness of the breast
  • Swelling of the entire breast
  • Swollen lymph nodes (usually in the armpit)

If you have a clogged milk duct that doesn’t resolve itself within 2 days, assume you have some mild mastitis, particularly if the area is warm or red. This needs to be treated with antibiotics. You can continue to breastfeed your baby, although they may refuse the milk from that side due to a change in taste.

Causes of clogged milk ducts

There are unavoidable aspects of nursing that mean you can get a clogged milk duct even when you do everything right. Still, if you want to reduce your risk of developing a blocked or clogged milk duct, you should know the more common causes and do what you can to avoid their occurrence:

  • Nursing without adequately draining each breast. If you are too hasty about nursing your baby and don’t empty each breast as much as possible, excess milk can be left in the breast, leading to possible stagnation and clotting of the milk within the ducts. Pumping can help in this situation. Learn about combining breastfeeding and pumping here.
  • Poor infant latching on. If the baby doesn’t latch on well, the suction will be poor and the breast may not empty well. Finally, latching on poorly might mean more breast or nipple pain when nursing; you may be tempted to stop nursing prematurely on that side. One example is if you’re trying to breastfeed with flat or inverted nipples. This is one of the many causes of a poor latch that can cause clogged milk ducts.
  • Changes in feeding schedule. Issues can arise if feeding is irregular or you’re trying to reduce the amount of nursing you do (for work, vacations, sickness, etc.).
  • Excess pressure on the breasts. If you have too much pressure on your breasts from tight clothing or a tight bra, you won’t make as much milk and what you do make has a greater chance of stagnating within the breast, causing a blocked duct.
  • Lack of adequate hydration. If you don’t drink enough, your milk will be thicker and more likely to stagnate or clot within the duct, causing a blocked duct.

Consider seeing a lactation consultant to help with clogged milk ducts

Blocked or clogged milk ducts can be scary, particularly if you develop them routinely.  A lactation consultant can help you get through this problem without the blocked duct leading to a more difficult crisis should the milk become infected.

Your lactation consultant has dealt with blocked or clogged milk ducts many times and can evaluate your options for treatment. They can examine the area and tell you how it may have developed. 

Your lactation consultant can also help you decide if you only have a clogged milk duct or if you have mastitis. They can direct you toward medical treatment if you need it and will help you avoid getting a blocked duct again in the future.

Christine Traxler MD is a family physician, lifelong writer, and author with a special interest in mental health, women’s healthcare, and the physical after-effects of psychological trauma. As a contributing writer and editor for numerous organizations, she brings a holistic focus to her work that emphasizes healing and wellness through daily self-care, connecting with others, and setting stepwise goals toward achieving more balanced and authentic lives.