Illustration of the breast and then nipple, indicating the various parts
About your breasts
Breasts are mainly made up of glandular, fibrous and fatty tissue. They sit on the front of the chest and extend down and around into the armpit. The breast tissue is supported by ligaments and the large chest muscle that extends over most of the ribs.
The glandular tissue contains lobes, with many smaller lobules inside each one. The lobules are the milk-producing glands. During lactation breast milk is carried through tubes called ducts to the nipple ready for breastfeeding. The darker area of skin around the nipple is called the areola. On the areola there are some little raised bumps. These are quite normal and are called Montgomery glands. They produce fluid to moisturise the nipple.
Normal breast changes
Your breasts change constantly throughout your life from puberty, through adolescence, the childbearing years, and then the menopause (change of life). This is because of the varying levels of the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone in your body.
Before a period
From puberty onwards oestrogen and progesterone play a vital part in regulating a woman’s menstrual cycle, which results in having periods. It is these hormones that are responsible for the changes you may notice in your breasts just before your period.
Your breasts may feel heavier and fuller. They may also be tender or lumpy. After a period this lumpiness becomes less obvious or may disappear altogether, although some women have tender, lumpy breasts all the time. Many women also have breast pain linked to their menstrual cycle (cyclical breast pain).
Breast changes can be an early sign of being pregnant. Many women feel a change in sensation in their breasts such as tingling and soreness (particularly of the nipples). This is due to increased levels of progesterone and the growth of the milk ducts. The breast and the areola begin to get bigger. The nipples and areola become darker and remain that way during pregnancy.
Download or order our Breast changes during and after pregnancy publication to find out more.
Large amounts of milk are produced to breastfeed a newborn baby, and the breasts can change size many times a day according to the baby’s feeding pattern. Nipples can sometimes become sore and cracked, but this generally gets better over time. When breastfeeding stops the breasts gradually go back to how they were before pregnancy, although they may be a different size and less firm than before.
Before, during and after the menopause
From around the mid-30s onwards the breasts begin to age and the glandular tissue is gradually replaced by fat. As oestrogen levels fall during and after the menopause the breasts may change size, lose their firmness, feel softer and may droop. Breast lumps are also common at this time, and these often turn out to be breast cysts (benign fluid-filled sacs).
It’s still important to see your GP (local doctor) about any changes that are new for you, even though most of these will be benign (not cancer).
Sometimes breast changes can indicate a benign breast condition that may need treatment. For example, breast pain linked to your periods is common and usually seen as normal. However, when it’s severe and long-lasting it can be seen as something that needs treating.
Being breast aware
Whatever your age, size or shape it’s important to take care of your breasts. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, so it’s important to look after your breasts by being breast aware.
Being breast aware is an important part of caring for your body. It means getting to know how your breasts look and feel, so you know what is normal for you. You can then feel more confident about noticing any unusual changes.
Breast changes are not usually accompanied by other physical symptoms, so even if you feel well it is still important to visit your GP and get any changes checked out.
How do I check my breasts?
There’s no right or wrong way to check your breasts. Try to get used to looking and feeling your breasts regularly. You can do this in the bath or shower, when you use body lotion, or when you get dressed. There’s really no need to change your everyday routine. Just decide what you are comfortable with and what suits you best.
Remember to check all parts of your breast, your armpits and up to your collarbone.
The breast awareness 5-point code
- You should know what is normal for you.
- Know what changes to look for.
- Look and feel.
- Tell your GP about any changes straight away.
- Go for breast screening when invited.
Guidance issued by the Department of Health, 2009.
Content last reviewed December 2011; next planned review 2013