20 Things You Need to Know About Your Nipples
Get to know your nipples
We all have nipples. But unless you’re breastfeeding, having sex, considering a nipple piercing, or the temperature suddenly drops (hello, headlights!), you probably don’t have much of a reason to think about these perky points on a regular basis.
Yet there’s a lot more to your nipples than you probably realize. While your breasts as a whole score most of the attention—they get their own examination by your doctor during your annual ob-gyn visit, for example, and they’re supported by a sport bras so they don't bounce around too much when you work out—your nipples remain out of the spotlight.
That’s a shame, because nipples are capable of some pretty incredible feats. Your nipples help deliver milk to a newborn, are sexually sensitive enough to increase your satisfaction during sex and even give you an orgasm (yes, really!), and can tip you off to clues to potentially serious health issues, such as certain types of breast cancer.
Learning about how much variation there is in the way they look, how they work, and what’s normal vs. what signs are red flags can teach you a lot about your overall health. Here’s what every woman should know about her nipples.
Your nipples don’t necessarily match
Just as your breasts probably aren’t the exact same size and shape—one is fuller, perhaps, the other closer to your armpit—neither are your nipples. “Maybe one nipple is a little bigger, or higher, or lower, and that’s totally normal,” says Nikita Shah, MD, a breast-cancer specialist at Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center.
Still, it’s smart to keep an eye on these variations when you notice them, says Dr. Shah. “Taking a good look at yourself in the mirror, with your hands on your hips, will give you a good idea what’s normal and what’s not for each nipple and how they’re different from each other.”
If you think something’s changed—one nipple looks more puckered than it used to, for example, or one of the many pimple-like ducts on your areola seems inflamed or swollen—loop in your doctor.
“If a change happens to both nipples at the same time, that can be comforting,” says Rebecca Tung, MD, director of dermatology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “If it’s just one, it’s more concerning. It could be a sign of cancer or an infection or another problem, and it’s a good idea to get it checked out.”
Nipples can be outies—or innies
Most nipples protrude outward, coming to a point at the tip of each breast. But 10% to 20% of women have nipples that are either perfectly flat or inverted, meaning they point inward and retract into breast tissue, forming a crease or indentation where the point would be.
If you’ve always had inverted nipples, as they're called, the condition is nothing to worry about, says Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, Health’s medical editor. Women with "innies" can still breastfeed and enjoy the same nipple super-sensitivity as all women. But if you notice that one of your nipples has recently flattened or retracted inward, see a doctor. It could be no big deal, yet it could also indicate breast cancer or another health condition a doctor should know about.
Nipple size and color can vary
They can be as small as a dime or as wide as a teacup saucer. And while it's normal to wonder how your nipples size up in comparison to other women, the truth is, says Dr. Rajapaksa, “nipples come in all sizes, and they’re all normal.”
The areola—the darker, typically raised circle around the nipple—can have a diameter of less than an inch to several inches across. The nipple itself can stick out prominently or look kind of puffed up, or it blend in more smoothly with the surrounding tissue of the areole. Nipple color varies widely as well—from light pink to dark brown and every shade between.
The bumps on the areolas have a purpose
The small bumps on the areolas—the pigmented area that surrounds the actual nipple itself—are called Montgomery tubercles, and they secrete oil that helps lubricate the nipple during pregnancy and lactation. That oil isn’t just to prevent dryness and chafing. It has antibacterial properties, says Dr. Rajapaksa, and its scent may even help attract infants to the breast (another one of Mother Nature’s ways of making sure babies get nourishment).
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Some women have just a few Montgomery tubercles while others may have dozens—and their size and appearance may change during pregnancy and breastfeeding. But as long as they aren’t painful or one or more is not suddenly enlarged, it’s best to leave these bumps alone. A swollen tubercle could indicate a blockage or infection. Get it checked out by your doctor, who might want to prescribe antibiotics.
Nipple hair is totally natural
The areolas also contain hair follicles, and it’s estimated that at least 30% of women have hair on their nipples. There’s nothing wrong with having hair there (or noticing extra growth during or after pregnancy)—but if it bothers you, it can be removed via tweezing or laser hair removal, says Dr. Tung. Avoid shaving and wa, which can cause cuts, burns, irritation, or ingrown hairs.
Worried you have more hair than you should on your nipples? Your primary care physician or gynecologist can let you know if anything looks out of the ordinary. Excess hair growth could be a sign of a hormonal imbalance like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). And if you have dark hairs sprouting from the skin of the breast just outside the nipple, don't worry, that's totally normal too.
Pierced nipples can be health risks
You may have heard that nipple piercings make foreplay more exciting, or you might just like how celebs look flaunting the nipple ring trend. But before you take the plunge yourself, it’s important to know the risks.
Nipple piercings increase the odds of a painful breast infection tenfold, according to a 2010 University of Iowa study. (In that same study, smoking, obesity, and diabetes also raised breast infection risk.) There’s also a possibility they could damage the ducts that produce milk for breastfeeding, trigger an allergic reaction and set you up for an itchy, ugly rash or swelling, or put you at risk for disease transmission if the instruments used during your piercing aren’t disinfected properly.
Discharge is (usually) normal
It's not unheard of, or necessarily anything to worry about, if your nipples occasionally leak a clear or whitish fluid. This discharge sounds weird, but this can be triggered when your nipples are stimulated by exercise, sexual activity, or being rubbed or chafed.
It’s also totally normal if they leak while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, even if your baby’s not actively trying to nurse—though it can be quite a surprise when a new mom realizes her blouse or T-shirt is suddenly wet with milk stains.
But if you notice the leaking for more than a week, or if your breasts leak without any stimulation, if only one nipple has discharge, or if you notice any blood, call your doctor. The fluid could be the sign of a harmless blockage or cyst, an infection, or a hormonal imbalance, says Dr. Shah.
Some people have three nipples . . . or more
Two breasts means two nipples, right? Not always. In rare cases, a preson can have a third nipple or even several additional, smaller nipples—sometimes mistaken for moles—known as accessory or supernumerary nipples. “These can occur anywhere along the vertical lines where your breasts are, from head to toe,” says Dr. Shah.
Where do these extra headlights come from? Early in pregnancy, a growing fetus develops something called a "mammary ridge" across the chest. Later on, this mammary ridge regresses and becomes two nipples—except in rare cases, when the ridge doesn't fully regress and an extra nipple—or two, or three—remain.
Accessory nipples may be noticed at birth, or they may get larger and be diagnosed around puberty. They’re usually harmless, but in rare cases they can cause discomfort, and there’s been at least one case of an accessory nipple developing cancer.
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