Mastitis, the ugly truth: My experience, managing symptoms, prevention and finding support

Mastitis is an issue I have been wanting to write about since I first started blogging. I’ve wanted to share the information I gathered through my experience, to hopefully assist others who may be affected by it. Although not currently relevant to my situation I can recall the details of my experience with almost perfect clarity. I’ve delayed writing this post due to concern that I would not be able to clearly articulate the severity of Mastitis, or achieve the exposure it deserves. I’m ready to share what I have learned through my own experiences.

I heard the term Mastitis long before I fell pregnant and never gave it much thought. As my pregnancy progressed, I heard about it more frequently and began to take notice of how often it appeared as a topic related to having a baby. During the later stages of my pregnancy, a good friend summarised her experience with Mastitis. This provided me with some clarification on the subject yet raised further questions. After listening to her story, I was terrified of it happening to me.

In a google of Mastitis, I found a description of the condition as ‘occurring when breast tissue gets inflamed and is a common problem during breastfeeding’ (healthdirect.gov.au). You can look after mastitis yourself, but you may need antibiotics if the tissue becomes infected. Although symptoms will vary from mild to severe and from person to person it is important to know what to be on the look out for.

Breastfeeding is a challenging task, in my early days of breastfeeding I managed these challenges to the best of my ability. Everything went pretty smoothly for almost 3 weeks. Without any obvious warning signs, I woke with a painful headache in the night and took two paracetamol before attempting to go back to sleep. Later the same morning, Nick and I took Finn to a child health nurse for his two week post hospital check-up. She routinely questioned us about Finn, including his feeding habits but did not provide any further information on my condition. I was feeling increasingly unwell as the appointment progressed and mentioned this to the health nurse. We were advised to attempt management from home and if we suspected Mastitis to consult our GP if there was no improvement.

After Finn’s appointment, Nick stopped at Bunnings and I waited in the car with Finn. In the short time he was away I deteriorated even further. I consulted with a trusted mum friend and decided to book in to see my GP. When I arrived at the practice an hour later, he took one look at me and said ‘you’ve got Mastitis’. A quick examination confirmed his initial statement. He sent me straight to the hospital with a recommendation of treatment letter to receive antibiotics via IV.

The usual physical signs of my Mastitis were so mild that the doctors in emergency were not convinced it was the cause of my illness.

They wanted to be certain and proceeded to conduct additional testing. This included a blood test followed by a nasal swab, which was very unpleasant. Once the initial tests had been taken, I was placed on IV antibiotics for treatment then transferred from emergency to a room for a stay in hospital overnight.

I was very fortunate that my mum was able to stay the first night in hospital with me, I was too ill to get out of bed or tend to Finn in any way. I spent the night in a semi lucid state which exhausted me completely. My temperature would spike to 39.6 and uncontrollable shivers would course through my body. As treatment, I was routinely given paracetamol to bring my temperature back to a normal range and calm my body’s trembling. In the brief hours of reprieve from the tremors I would attempt to sleep, although when breastfeeding 3 week old Finn every few hours it was far from peaceful. In addition to the fever I suffered from extreme headaches, nausea and muscle aches throughout my entire body.

After 24 hours my condition had not improved, my treating doctors commenced a stronger course of antibiotics and proceeded with further tests. I was sent for a chest and sinus X-ray, several blood tests and then finally a lumbar puncture. Once commencing the new antibiotics I began feeling better, however there had been some concern that I may have had bacterial meningitis which the lumbar puncture eventually ruled out. As a result of the lumbar puncture procedure, I experienced a most severe headache (which can be a common side affect) and could no longer sit upright or get out of bed. I underwent a blood patch procedure to assist in rectifying the problem and within a few hours my headache finally started to fade.

5 days of staying in hospital was required for my condition to improve enough to return home. Even after all the testing and observations they were still unconvinced it had been a case of Mastitis that had caused my illness, yet they did not have any further answers for me. I continued with my prescription of oral antibiotics from the comfort of home and with Nick’s support made a complete recovery after another week.

It was only 3 weeks before I got sick the second time, I noticed the symptoms almost immediately & acted swiftly booking into see my GP within an hour. He wasted no time at all prescribing me the antibiotics, then sent me with a referral letter to the hospital to have a dose of antibiotics administered via IV. Fortunately, Nick was available to mind Finn while I spent a couple of hours in hospital receiving treatment. I’m grateful that the prompt treatment prevented me from being as unwell as my first case but I still suffered with fevers, muscle aches, headaches and sore breasts.

Two sessions of IV antibiotics and week of tablets cleared me up again, only three weeks later I felt my third case of Mastitis developing. I once again saw my GP and picked up the script for my antibiotics right away. This avoided a need to go to the hospital, although I was incredibly sick and bed ridden for the best part of a week. Finn was around 10 weeks old at this stage and I was facing a dilemma, continue breastfeeding my son and possibly deal with a case of Mastitis every 3 weeks, or give up on breastfeeding and hope he took well to formula.

I decided to explore one final option in the hopes of continuing breastfeeding. I had followed all the advice from various lactation consultants, child health nurses and medical professionals. I had used heat packs, massaged and drained my breasts, took lecithin and breastfeeding probiotics, yet Mastitis persisted. The final option was to have ultrasound therapy. The ultrasound machine could assist with breaking down the material that was causing my repeated blockage and hopefully bring an end to the recurring Mastitis. So, I arranged for three sessions of ultrasound therapy with a physiotherapist.

The first ultrasound session was extremely promising, I felt a relief from some of the pressure I had come to accept as normal. Following the second and third sessions, there was a noticeable change to the way my breast felt. The treatment had worked, the offending blockage was cleared and I could continue feeding without getting sick every three weeks. Thanks to this treatment and continued support I made it past 9 months of breastfeeding. I overcame 3 further cases of Mastitis, repeatedly telling myself that enough was enough each time I became sick. Yet, I pushed through and allowed my breastfeeding journey to come to a natural stopping point, complementing the timing of my return to work.

There are many problems with managing Mastitis, symptoms that appear and escalate so quickly leaving you unable to function for a week. Constant drs visits, antibiotics, probiotics, vitamins and ultrasound therapy with a physiotherapist to manage we’re all part of recurring Mastitis for me. In addition, I lived with constant fear that it would happen again. These fears plagued my thoughts even when I was well, any slight discomfort would trigger severe anxiety.

Although Mastitis is common and individual experiences vary, this is something I never expected nor did I know it would impact me so servely. If you have ever experienced this before or are a new or expectant parent and have further questions I would love for you to reach out to me. I struggled with this a lot, and from my experiences there is limited information available.

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