Of all the inconvenient places to have itchy skin, your breasts and nipples rank pretty high. I mean, you can’t just rub calamine lotion all over your boobs at any given moment. And reaching down your shirt to scratch those itchy nipples would probably be pretty awkward in any setting.
But don’t worry—you’re not doomed to feeling yourself up in public for eternity. There are a bunch of reasons why you may be experiencing itchy breasts—and most of them are pretty harmless. “Itching is the result of inflammation or stimulation of nerves in the skin. This may be the result of dryness, allergic reactions, direct irritation, or even a result of internal health issues,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, of Zeichner Dermatology.
Rarely are itchy nipples the result of something more serious, but it can happen. “There is a condition called Paget’s disease which looks like a non-healing, red rash on the nipples. It is actually a low-grade skin cancer that needs to be surgically removed,” explains Dr. Zeichner.
But most treatments for other causes of itchy nipples have easy fixes, like topical remedies (think: a hydrocortisone ointment) or eliminating irritants, like a poorly fitted bra.
Still, if itching is actually driving you crazy, it's best to book an appointment with your ob-gyn or derm. In the meantime, here are 15 potential reasons why you just can't stop scratching your boobs, and what you can do about each one.
It's super dry outside.
The skin around your nipples is a lot more sensitive than the skin on other parts of your body, says Dr. Zeichner. This may make it more prone to irritation, dryness, and inflammation, especially in dryer weather. "Cold, dry weather strips the skin of essential oils, disrupting the outer skin layer, resulting in loss of hydration, and inflammation," explains Dr. Zeichner.
If you're experiencing dry or flaky skin, he suggests applying a moisturizer to help repair the skin barrier. "Look for ingredients like petrolatum, ceramides, or colloidal oatmeal," says Dr. Zeichner, who often recommends Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair Lotion, given that it helps build a protective seal over the skin without leaving you feeling sticky.
You have thyroid issues.
The thyroid is involved in the regulation of several organs, including your skin. "We know that when thyroid hormone levels are low, the skin can become dry which leads to itching," says Dr. Zeichner. But itchy nipples aren't the only possible symptom of thyroid issues. Other symptoms include changes in your appetite, muscle aches and fatigue, among others.
If you suspect you're having thyroid issues based on your symptoms, consult your doctor, who can refer you to an endocrinologist if necessary.
You're heading into menopause.
Hormonal changes occur during menopause, like a drop in estrogen production. Now that your body's producing less estrogen, the end of menstruation can also have an effect on your skin too, says ob-gyn Felice Gersh, MD. "Menopause is a state of estrogen deficiency, and estrogen is key to maintaining healthy skin. Without it, the skin atrophies and becomes drier."
One way to avoid itchy nipples caused by menopause is to use a topical estrogen treatment, says Dr. Gersh. Consult your doctor about menopause hormone prescriptions.
You have eczema.
Eczema is a genetic skin disorder often made worse by environmental exposures, says Kari Martin, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.
An eczema rash has a pretty specific look; it's often categorized as small raised bumps or reddish patches on the skin, and it can definitely show up on your nipples. But Dr. Martin says the rash will likely appear on both your nipples and breasts.
Dr. Martin recommends avoiding harsh soaps and moisturizing the skin regularly with an emollient such as petroleum jelly. You can also try an OTC hydrocortisone ointment twice a day for up to two weeks, but check with your dermatologist if your eczema flare-up doesn’t clear up after that.
You have psoriasis.
Like eczema, psoriasis is another skin condition—but this one is caused by an autoimmune disorder.
You have an insect bite.
Insect bites might not be the first thing you think of when you’ve got an annoying itch on your breast, but it’s totally possible. Dr. Gore says to inspect the area carefully for signs of an insect bite—like a single raised bump and redness surrounding it—and pay special attention to marks that appear in multiples, since that could mean you have a bed bug infestation (gross, but true).
OTC hydrocortisone creams, calamine lotion, or oral antihistamines are usually a good defense against itchiness from insect bites, says Dr. Gore.
You've had radiation therapy for breast cancer.
Radiation therapy for breast cancer can lead to a specific type of dermatitis (aka inflammation of the skin), and Dr. Martin says the itching can start right after the patch of skin has been exposed to radiation, or even months or years later.
“It occurs because of damage and scarring [from] the radiation beams passing through the skin to deeper tissues,” she explains. “It usually presents as broken blood vessels and firmness of the skin; it may be painful, itchy, or have no associated symptoms at all.”
Like with most forms of dermatitis, moisturizing is key. But sometimes stronger topical corticosteroids are needed, in which case Dr. Martin recommends heading to your ob-gyn.
If you’re expecting, you can also expect some itching to go along with that growing baby bump. Dr. Gore says normal physiological changes that occur during pregnancy, like the enlargement of the breasts in preparation for lactation, can be enough to cause a woman’s boobs to itch.
“As the skin stretches to accommodate the [growing] breasts, it often becomes dry and irritated,” she explains. “Some women develop stretch marks, which irritates the skin even more.”
The best way to manage symptoms? Keep the skin moisturized with topical lotions—specifically unscented ones, to avoid further irritation, says Dr. Gore.
Intensive breastfeeding (like during the newborn period) can cause itch-inducing dryness, says Dr. Gore. Your ob-gyn can recommend a few baby-safe remedies—like medical-grade lanolin or even warm compresses—to try if your nipples have become seriously dry or cracked from breastfeeding.
If you still experience itching even with lan0lin, you may have an allergy to it, explains Susan Bard, MD, a dermatologist at Vive Dermatology.
But monitor any cracked skin. Broken skin on the nipples can lead to the introduction of bacteria into the milk ducts, which may result in an infection called mastitis, says Dr. Gore. Mastitis, which can also be caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the breast milk thanks to infrequent feedings or blocked milk ducts, causes symptoms like pain or tenderness in the breast, as well as fever and flu-like symptoms.
"Discontinuation of any potential allergens or irritants is crucial," says Dr. Bard, so be careful that what you're treating your dry breasts with isn't causing further damage. If you think you have mastitis, call your doctor, since you may need an antibiotic.