Lactating but not nursing

Dear Alice,

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

Dear Reader, 

The Milky Way contains its fair share of mysteries, but this milky situation is a lot more common than you might think! It’s not unusual for milky discharge to continue for up to two to three years after discontinuing breastfeeding. That said, some people (regardless of their sex assigned at birth or whether they’ve breastfed before) can experience milk production or milky discharge called galactorrhea. 

Galactorrhea can happen to anyone, but it’s most frequent in those assigned female at birth ages 20 to 35 and in people who have previously given birth. A release of a milky substance from one or both breasts is usually caused by excess production of the milk-making hormone, prolactin, which is triggered by the pituitary gland in the brain. 

Galactorrhea itself isn't a health risk, but it may occasionally be a sign of serious concern. Many cases of galactorrhea don’t have a known cause. However, some common causes of galactorrhea can include: 

  • Over stimulating the breasts (through sexual activity, frequent self-exams, or irritating clothing) 
  • Herbal supplements (i.e., fennel, anise, or fenugreek seed) 
  • Stress 
  • Certain medications (i.e., birth control pills, blood pressure medicine, antidepressants, or opioids) 
  • Thyroid disorders 
  • Chronic kidney disease 
  • A pituitary tumor (typically non-cancerous) 

List adapted from Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic

If you’re experiencing milky discharge from the breasts, some additional symptoms to look out for that may indicate a larger concern include: 

  • Missed periods or other menstrual changes 
  • Vaginal dryness 
  • Headaches 
  • Lowered sex drive 
  • New hair growth on the chest or chin 
  • Acne 

List adapted from Cleveland Clinic

Ongoing milk production is a common experience after breastfeeding, but if what you’re experiencing is bothersome, you may want to reach out to a health care provider. They may be able to provide a diagnosis through a physical breast exam, analysis of your discharge, or blood and imaging tests to narrow down the cause and make appropriate recommendations. A health care provider could suggest changes to current medication or starting new medication that may lower prolactin levels as a potential treatment. 

If galactorrhea is the likely culprit, take solace knowing that it usually goes away on its own over time. In the interim, there may be a few other steps to take to make sure you're feeling comfortable. You might try avoiding activities that overstimulate your nipples, wearing looser fitting clothes to avoid friction on your breasts, or even wearing breast pads to catch any further leakage. 

Hope this helps! 

Last updated Dec 05, 2023
Originally published Nov 21, 2003

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