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Why Are My Nipples Purple? Nipple Vasospasm Explained

Nipple vasospasm is a common problem that can affect breastfeeding and pumping. It's characterized by the nipplesgetting lighter first and  turning dark and then purple. This change in color is caused by a reduction in blood flow to the nipples, and then that blood's return. Since blood is red, when it does return to a particular area of the body, it can cause it to take on a more reddish or purple hue, and mom's nipples are no different.

The healthcare professionals and breastfeeding experts on the Limerick team know that Nipple Vasospasm can be uncomfortable and seem quite scary at first, but in and of itself, it doesn't indicate any underlying health issues, nor does it pose any long-term risks for lactating women or their babies. This article will explain why your nipples may have gone purple, what happens next, and how best to manage this condition so you can continue breastfeeding or pumping successfully. Let's take a look.

Nipple Vasospasm and Raynaud's Phenomenon

Nipple Vasospasm is a condition that can occur in both men and women. It is characterized by your nipples taking on a purplish appearance and usually becoming sensitive or sore, but it has nothing to do with any kind of illness or infection. In fact, the cause is more similar to Raynaud's Phenomenon, what happens when your hand falls asleep if you lie on your arm for too long, or why your fingers or toes go numb if they get too cold.

The condition occurs when the blood supply to certain areas of the skin decreases - either through direct physical restriction of the blood supply (as happens when you lie on your arm and your hand falls asleep) or because of the onset of a sensation of cold, which is more common in the particular case of Nipple Vasospasm. Most commonly, these cold sensations are brought on by sudden change (i.e., a drop) in ambient temperature, by exposure to cold weather, or by application of something that feels cold to the skin. However, whatever the cause may be, when this happens, blood vessels narrow down - leading to a reduced amount of blood and oxygen getting into tissue surrounding those vessels.

The mechanics of Nipple Vasospasm

Nipple Vasospasm is caused by the contraction of the small blood vessels in the nipple when a breastfeeding mom experiences a sudden cold sensation, as may occur when you stop pumping or your baby finishes feeding. Once this sensation arrives, the surrounding vessels will constrict, and the nipple will receive a lower blood supply.

If this cold sensation is strong enough, it can cause blanching (turning white) of the nipple and/or areola and diminished sensation or numbness. However, as the sensation subsides and warm blood returns to areas that felt cold, the returning blood supply can cause nipples to take on a purple appearance and become sensitive. Both elements are similar to the sensation of pins and needles that you feel as blood returns to an area that has gone numb (for example, if a hand or foot falls asleep) or your cheeks turning red after entering a warm room after being outside in cold weather.

What does it feel like?

Moms who have experienced Nipple Vasospasm have described the sensations in a variety of ways, and expressed a range of intensities - so every mom's experience of vasospasm is likely to be different and unique to them. However, the Limerick team has identified four main elements (or variables) to what each individual who experiences Nipple Vasospasm is likely to feel. These are as follows:

  • Sensation. Quite simply, this is what you feel in and around the nipples during a period of vasospasm. This could be anything from a mild tingling feel to an intense burning sensation and all points in-between.
  • Duration. For some women, whatever sensation they feel, they may only experience it for a matter of seconds or minutes, while for others it may last longer.
  • Intensity. Some women may experience vasospasm, but it may not cause significant issues. However, for others, it can be a source of great discomfort. It's important to acknowledge that no matter how vasospasm makes you feel, it's okay to feel that way.
  • Other phenomena. We started this article by asking the question, "why are my nipples purple"? but purple isn't the only color that you may see. Shades of white, blue, and red are also possible, so if what you see isn't a definite "purple" - if it feels slightly redder, bluer, or paler - then don't panic.

So, while, unfortunately, we can't give you a definite answer as to what you can expect to feel if you experience Nipple Vasospasm, we can at least give you an idea of what you might feel and the ability to identify what is normal for you.

Is this anything to worry about?

If your purple nipples are the result of vasospasm, then there’s nothing much to worry about. Vasospasm is caused by your body's natural reaction to a stimulus and recovery from that reaction. It is, essentially, your body "doing what it is supposed to do" under the circumstances. However, if the symptoms or sensations that you experience are particularly painful, or if they start to have an impact on your breastfeeding or pumping routines, then you may want to seek a doctor - or even a breastfeeding specialist like a lactation consultant - about finding a good solution for you.

While Raynaud's and Nipple Vasospasm aren't an indication of any illness or health issues themselves, it is also important to realize that there are a number of health conditions that can cause symptoms similar to those seen in Nipple Vasospasm (including purple nipples). These include:

  • Pinching or compression of the nipple due to a poor or shallow latch
  • Tongue-tie
  • Thrush / Infection of the nipple
  • Sensitivity / reaction to nipple creams
  • Pregnancy

It's important to see a doctor if you suspect any of these conditions, because they may require their own treatment regimen, and may be serious. However, if these are all ruled out, then don't worry - as we mentioned above, vasospasm is caused entirely by things that your body is supposed to do.

How can vasospasm affect pumping or breastfeeding?

First and foremost, vasospasm and the sensations it creates, can of course, cause discomfort. If you have recently started pumping or breastfeeding, it's completely understandable that feeling those things may be discouraging to a degree.

It's also true that a lack of blood flow may affect milk supply and expression, but it doesn't mean that there is an issue with milk production. Equally, experiencing issues with vasospasm doesn't mean you're sick, and it doesn't mean anything's wrong - it's just a bump in the road. Once you figure out the solutions or preventative measures that work for you and get on top of things, you should be able to pump or feed without issue.

What can I do about Nipple Vasospasm?

Just because vasospasm isn't an illness, it doesn't mean that there's nothing a breastfeeding mother can do about it. You don't need medication, but there are several steps you can take as a preventative measure or to speed recovery. As a general rule, the following actions and behaviors can help to reduce your vasospasm:

  • Avoid nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. These are vaso-constrictors and will contribute to the narrowing of your blood vessels rather than prevent it should you ingest them - possibly making any issues you're having with Nipple Vasospasm worse.
  • Keep the nipples and breasts warm when not pumping or feeding. This keeps the blood supply to the nipple more constant and mitigates the "leave and return" cycle that can cause blanching and then the purple color that alerts many moms to vasospasm issues.
  • Certain vitamins and supplements can help. In particular, these include vitamins B3 and D6, Omega-3, and Magnesium.
  • Acupuncture. Because Nipple Vasospasm is centered around blood circulation to the nipples and breasts, acupuncture may be useful in helping to promote better circulation.

Where to go for further breastfeeding support:

We hope this page has helped you understand what Nipple Vasospasm is and what you can do about it. However, as moms and breastfeeding experts, Limerick knows that "why are my nipples purple" is far from the only question that new moms (and dads) may have about breastfeeding, so check out our Resource Center for more informative articles and answers about breastfeeding!