Lactating but not nursing

Originally Published: November 21, 2003 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 29, 2009
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Dear Alice,

I have not nursed in a year-and-a-half. Why does my breast still lactate?

Dear Reader,

It is perfectly normal for a woman to experience lactation for as long as two years after she has stopped nursing. In fact, women are physically capable of producing milk from as soon as 48 hours after delivery up until menopause. Small discharges from time to time are normal and common.

However, if you are experiencing excessive or unexplained lactation, called galactorrhea, it is important to discover the reason. Galactorrhea is a rare condition occurring in both men and women for which the most common indicator is release of a milky substance from one or both breasts. Common causes of galactorrhea include:

  • starting new medication
  • taking herbs, such as nettle, fennel, or anise
  • drug use, especially marijuana and opiates
  • wearing clothing that might irritate the breasts or nipples
  • stimulating the breast either by sexual activity or performing frequent breast self-exams

Galactorrhea itself is not dangerous, but can be a sign of other serious problems, such as a hormonal imbalance or a tumor of the pituitary gland. You might consider seeing your primary care provider if you are concerned or if you are experiencing any of the following in conjunction with galactorrhea:

  • irregular or absent menstrual periods
  • headaches or vision problems
  • increased hair growth
  • increased acne
  • hot flashes
  • vaginal dryness
  • lessened interest in sex

It's not clear from what you've written here whether or not your lactation bothers you. If it does bother you — or if you are experiencing any of the symptoms above — then you can see your health care provider, who may be able to suggest treatment options. Students at Columbia can call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator for an appointment. If you're not bothered by the lactation, then you can try waiting it out to see if it ends on its own.