I Thought I Had Flu. It Turned Out To Be Mastitis

I'd been breastfeeding for over a year and was pretty complacent it wouldn't happen to me... Until it did.
Mastitis can occur in anyone – and is sometimes excruciatingly painful
Carol Yepes via Getty Images
Mastitis can occur in anyone – and is sometimes excruciatingly painful

I lay in bed realising I’d finally succumbed. I had flu. The self-diagnosis made sense: our then 15-month-old had picked up her billionth illness of the year from childcare and was suffering with a high temperature and the kind of chesty cough that rattled her ribcage. Meanwhile, flu cases were on the rise in the UK.

I’d spent a sleepless night shivering in bed one moment, my teeth chattering aggressively, and sweating buckets the next. By morning, my body ached and I was so tired I was unsure I’d be able to move out of bed. Spoiler alert: I had to because, as we all know, toddlers do not stop. Even when sick.

I did a Covid test, and it came back negative. I spent the rest of the day trying to look after my daughter while feeling like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. It meant back-to-back Hey Duggee and lots of reading – she’d fetch books and sit on top of me while I lay on the sofa, so I didn’t really have much say on the matter.

One of my boobs started to feel a bit tender as the day went on but I brushed it off. In over a year of breastfeeding I’d never had mastitis, so I presumed I wouldn’t develop it now – the stories I’d heard about it were always from those experiencing it in the few months after having babies.

Plus, there had been multiple occasions where my breast had felt a little bit sore due to engorgement but I’d always managed to clear the issue at home.

The following day I still felt awful and noticed that my tender boob now had a red patch on one side and, oh boy, the pain was next level. It had progressed to the point where it hurt to touch or even put a bra on. At this point I strongly suspected it might not be flu that was causing my body aches, fatigue and shivering after all, so I called the doctor’s surgery and managed to bag an appointment that afternoon.

After a quick examination, with my GP exclaiming how hot and red the area was, she confirmed I had mastitis – where the breast becomes inflamed, usually as a result of an infection. This issue mostly occurs in those who are breastfeeding when there’s a build-up of milk in one of the breasts or a blocked milk duct hasn’t cleared properly.

The pain can be extreme. I now fully understand why Stacey Solomon once described it as feeling like her boobs were “on fire”.

The diagnosis made sense. I’d been reducing my feeds for a few weeks to try and wean my daughter off milk during the day, so she was only really having the odd feed at night.

Still, I was surprised I hadn’t developed an issue sooner, and that the pain had been secondary to my flu symptoms – but maybe I’d just become used to that dull ache that comes from not having your boobs emptied properly.

Symptoms of mastitis include:

  • a swollen area on your breast that may feel hot and painful to touch The area may become red but this can be harder to see if you have darker skin
  • a wedge-shaped breast lump or a hard area on your breast.
  • a burning pain in your breast that might be constant or only when you breastfeed
  • nipple discharge, which may be white or contain streaks of blood
  • flu-like symptoms such as aches, a high temperature, chills and tiredness

Antibiotics were prescribed (the go-to treatment for mastitis) and within a few days I was feeling right as rain again – no shivers, no shakes, and a very happy breast. Since then, I’ve had a few issues with blocked ducts, but I’m no longer complacent. Whenever I’ve felt a twinge of tenderness, I’ve promptly dealt with the issue to avoid it developing into mastitis again.

This has often meant putting a warm wet cloth on the tender area, or having a warm shower or bath. But the NHS also recommends continuing to breastfeed, starting feeds with the sore breast first to empty any backed up milk; expressing milk between feeds; and massaging the area of the breast where it’s tender.

It’s important to note that mastitis can occur in anyone, even men. When it’s not caused by breast milk building up, it may be down to: smoking, damaging the nipple, breast implants, having a weak immune system, or shaving/plucking hairs from around the nipples.

If you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms and breast pain which doesn’t go away after 24 hours, speak to your GP. Don’t struggle on or brush it off, as the sooner you get it treated, the sooner you’ll feel better.

And if you experience recurrent mastitis, it’s definitely worth speaking to a midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding specialist who can help you get to the bottom of why.

Help and support:

  • You can call the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212 (9.30am to 9.30pm, daily)
  • Get breastfeeding support from La Leche League.