What Breast Changes are Normal

A woman will experience many changes in her breasts over her lifetime. These changes are caused by hormones, pregnancy, breastfeeding, density, and aging.

Key takeaways:
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    Breasts undergo many normal changes from puberty to menopause.
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    Most of these changes are not cause for concern.
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    Breast cancer can happen at any time.
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    Knowing how your breasts look and feel will help you recognize any changes.

The majority of these changes are normal however any concerns should be discussed with your primary care provider (PCP).

Breast development

As a girl’s ovaries mature, they release hormones that cause the breasts to develop.

A girl’s breasts usually begin to develop between the ages of 8 and 13. Breast buds form just underneath and around the nipple.

As the breast buds grow, the girl may experience discomfort or itching because the skin is stretched. The breasts continue to grow, becoming rounder and fuller as they develop.

One breast may grow faster than the other, but they often end up the same size, though some women have one breast that is larger than the other.

A girl’s breasts usually stop growing around the age of 18 but can continue developing into her early 20s. Because breasts are mostly made of fat, weight changes can result in larger or smaller breasts. During puberty, breasts begin to develop a couple of years ahead of menstruation.

Menstrual cycle

Hormones also are responsible for a girl’s menstrual cycle. These hormones can cause breast changes that are experienced during the monthly cycle.

Breasts may become swollen and tender, even painful, during the menstrual cycle. Breasts can also become lumpy. The swelling, discomfort, and lumpiness are thought to be due to the enlargement of milk ducts in anticipation of pregnancy. If pregnancy does not occur, the breasts return to their normal state.

As the girl matures into a woman, the monthly changes usually become stable, and the woman knows what to expect and can identify anything new with her breasts.

Pregnancy

When pregnancy occurs, the breasts swell in preparation for milk production. The milk ducts develop, and the area around the nipple called the areola also swells and darkens in color. Blood vessels often become more noticeable too. These changes prepare the breasts for milk production to feed the baby.

Breastfeeding

During breastfeeding, the breasts swell with milk production, and the swelling goes down as the baby feeds. Sometimes blocked milk ducts can cause mastitis, abscesses, and cysts.

The recommended way to treat blocked milk ducts is to feed using the other breast. This will allow the swelling in the affected breast to go down, allowing the blocked milk ducts to flow freely. This can help to prevent the development of mastitis, abscesses, and cysts.

Menopause

Perimenopause is the stage before menopause. During perimenopause, hormone production drops off as the childbearing stage ends. As estrogen decreases, the breasts shrink as the milk ducts become smaller and the breasts change shape.

They become less full and round and can become V-shaped and saggy. Your breasts can feel tender and lumpy as they undergo these changes.

Once you are menopausal, the breasts do not usually experience any changes, such as swelling, tenderness, or lumpiness. If these symptoms do occur, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your PCP.

Breast density can change over the years. Dense breasts have a higher risk for breast cancer. Breasts can become denser or less dense over time, but by menopause, the breasts are less dense due to hormonal changes.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer can occur at any time, and as women age, their chance of getting breast cancer increases merely due to living longer. Throughout your life, it is important to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so that you can identify any changes. A trip to your PCP is necessary to determine if the changes are suspicious or not.

From puberty to menopause, a woman’s breasts go through many changes. These changes are initially in preparation for pregnancy and breastfeeding and then due to menopause when childbearing is no longer possible. Paying attention to these changes can help you identify those that require medical attention.

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