What Is Thrush And How Do I Know If I Have It?

baby tongue with thrush

So often when we work with breastfeeding moms, we wish we could just wave our magic wand and make common, troublesome things like nipple soreness or damage just GO AWAY!  

The sad truth, though, is that lactation helpers are less “Fairy Godmother” and more “Sherlock Holmes” looking for clues and hints that help us form a plan to help the mothers and babies we work with.

   It isn’t always easy to tell if, for example, your nipple soreness is caused by a latch that needs some work (this is actually the most common reason) or if it’s something that happens a little less frequently–such as thrush.

   Thrush is an overgrowth of a fungus–candida albicans.  Any woman who’s had a vaginal yeast infection likely remembers the burning and itching that can nearly drive you up a wall!  In a breastfeeding mom, thrush can be that same kind of maddening burning and itching…except located on your nipples…which may already be tender from nursing a new baby.  OUCH!

    So, what are some signs that your sore nipples could be caused by yeast overgrowth (thrush), rather than a different source?

1. Soreness began after a stretch of comfortable nursing.  Usually, once a mom and baby figure out how to latch well, and Mom’s nipples are feeling comfortable, sudden nipple soreness isn’t going to be because Baby forgot how to nurse correctly.  When you get sore after weeks of comfortable breastfeeding, thrush could be the cause.

2. You would describe the pain as “burning” or “itching.”  Other phrases I’ve heard are, “shards of glass” and “fire.”  Not a fun time, eh?  If the pain feels more like an ache or bruise, that would give a clue that thrush is not the culprit, but if  the pain brings up visions of a volcano, thrush could be the cause.

3. The pain is constant.  Thrush pain will not go away when Baby is finished nursing. During nursing, the pain may be so great that it is nearly unbearable.  Many moms have said they’d rather go through labor again than to suffer a round of thrush. If the burning and pain don’t go away, even when Baby is finished nursing, thrush could be the cause.

4. Your nipples appear pink and shiny.  Often with thrush, there is a rather distinctive look to the nipple.  It might look something like a sunburn and often has a very slight sheen to it.  Sometimes, there is even flaking.  While irritated nipples can be caused by a number of other factors, if your nipple looks pink, shiny or flaky, thrush could be the  cause.

5. You have recently been on antibiotics.  While very necessary in cases of bacterial infections, antibiotics and thrush often go hand-in-hand.  In the course of killing off the “bad germs,” antibiotics also wipe out the “good germs” in our bodies, which are the ones that help keep all our microbes in a good balance.  This lack of balance can allow yeast (candida albicans) to begin to take over.  This overgrowth is what causes all the unpleasant symptoms of thrush.  If you have had antibiotics recently, thrush could be the cause of your nipple pain.

6, Your breastfed baby has thrush. There is a good chance that if your baby has it in his or her mouth, you do too, on your nipples. It is easily passed back and forth between mother and baby. Your baby’s tongue may be coated in a thick white coating. They may be very uncomfortable at the breast. As sore as it can make your nipples, a baby who has thrush can have pain and soreness inside of their mouths.

If you have read through these clues and begin to suspect your nipple soreness may be caused by thrush, it may be helpful to talk with a lactation support person.  Only medical professionals can actually diagnose thrush and prescribe a treatment, but a lactation helper can help you do some investigating to look for evidence left by that villain: Candida Albicans.

Heidi ShulistaWhat Is Thrush And How Do I Know If I Have It?

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