Women may feel awkward going to the doctor to complain about Itchy breasts, but this symptom should be taken seriously since it can be an indicator of breast cancer. It could likely be a result of dry skin, allergies to laundry detergent or certain clothing materials, general irritation, or rashes, but it does not hurt to see a doctor since early diagnosis of breast cancer makes it easier for treatment and increases one ‘s risk of survival.
Itchiness as a Symptom of Breast Cancer
There are different types of breast cancer, classified according to where they originated in the breast and whether or not they have spread outside of the breast (metastasized). Some types are more common than others and some are very rare. Symptoms can include itchiness, scaly or dimpled skin on the breast or nipple, painful swelling, a lump in the breast or armpit, and general pain in the breast.
Although itchiness can be a symptom of all types of breast cancer, there are two types that commonly present this symptom. These are inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) and Paget’s disease of the nipple. Before fearing cancer as the cause for itchy breasts, it is important to rule out other conditions and understand what causes general itching.
Understanding an Itch
An itch happens when the skin is irritated and gives people the urge to address it by scratching it. They are common and can either be particular to a certain part of the body (localized) or in several areas or occur all over the body (generalized). Pruritus is the medical term used to describe itching. People who suffer from pruritus tend to complain that their itching is worse at nighttime.
Localized itching is usually easier to treat than generalized itching. A localized itch such as a bug bite tends to have a known cause and attention only has to be paid to that one area. In contrast, generalized itching can happen with skin lesions or without them. Examples of skin lesions include bumps or other abnormalities that are visible on the skin. These types of itches should be addressed by a doctor or even a dermatologist since dermatologists specialize in treating conditions of the skin.
The Cause of Itching
There are a variety of conditions which can cause itching of the breast. It does not have to be caused by a physical or visible skin abnormality: sometimes it can be psychological. Stress and anxiety can cause a person to feel the need to itch excessively. Sometimes disorders of the endocrine system or metabolic disorders can cause itching. Allergic reactions are common causes as well. Also to blame are certain conditions affecting the nerves including shingles, diabetes, or multiple sclerosis. Sometimes contact with certain lotions, bra fabrics, or other substances can cause itching which tends to have a rash accompanied with it.
Itching can also result from more apparent visual stimulants such as insect bites or stings. Simply having dry skin can cause it to itch as well. Prolonged exposure to sun can cause sunburn which also itches as it is healing. Itching is so common that most people who suffer occasionally do not have to worry about a serious underlying health condition. But recognizing certain symptoms may point to breast cancer and should be taken seriously.
Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is a more advanced type and is therefore more serious. The good news is that it is a very rare type, accounting for 1 percent of all women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Since infections often cause a person’s skin to feel itchy, warm and look red, inflammatory breast cancer was named because the skin looks inflamed or infected. The skin of the breast can sometimes look like the skin of an orange, dimpled and tough. It is not common for people with this type of breast cancer to feel a lump but the breast is often swollen and firm to the touch.
Although IBC is rare, it is important to take seriously and recognize the symptoms. Doctors will often put patients who complain of itchiness or signs of infection on an antibiotic. If within a week, the symptoms persist, a biopsy should be performed. Doctors will use a needle to remove cells from the breast for examination under a microscope to determine if cancer cells are present. They will look for cancer cells in the lymphatic channels in the breast skin.
Paget’s Disease of the Nipple
Sir James Paget was a scientist and surgeon who first described this form of cancer. It is also a rare type, occurring in approximately 1 percent of breast cancer cases in women. Paget’s disease originates in the ducts of the breast and then progresses to the areola and the nipple. Besides itchiness, symptoms include:
- Burning in the nipple area
- Scaly skin
- Bleeding and other discharge
- A toughening of the skin
Signs and symptoms usually occur in one breast only. The disease typically starts in the nipple and may spread to the areola and other areas of the breast. In rare cases, only the areola is affected. Sometimes it may seem as if the skin on the nipple or the breast is healing by itself but then comes back occasionally. Women tend to experience symptoms of Paget’s disease for several months before an official diagnosis is made. Although it should be taken seriously, there is most likely not a reason to panic. Eczema can cause similar symptoms.
The only way to know if itching is being caused by breast cancer is to see a doctor who will be able to make a proper diagnosis. Although itching most likely is not being caused by breast cancer, it never hurts to get a doctor’s opinion since early detection is important to survival.