A nipple is a bulge (bump) of tissue found on the breast from which milk flows during breastfeeding. Just as breasts come in all shapes and sizes, so do nipples.
While most people have protruding nipples, about 10 to 20 percent have inverted nipples. Flat nipples are another possible change.
In addition to different shapes and sizes, nipples can point forward, sideways, or down. People may have hairy nipples and sometimes extra nipples. Knowing that these differences are normal may be a relief since many people are self-conscious about their nipples.
This article will explain normal changes in nipple type and describe when to call your healthcare provider with concerns.
While protruding nipples are the most common type, their exact shape also varies from person to person. One study found that the average height of the nipple was 0.9 cm or 1/3 of an inch. Protruding nipples can become more erect if exposed to cold, touch stimulation, or during sexual arousal.
The nipple is surrounded by a pigmented circle called the areola. Depending on a person’s skin tone, it can be pink to brown. The areola has glands that lubricate the nipple to aid breastfeeding.
It is important to be familiar with the usual shape and size of your nipples so that you can report any sudden or one-sided changes to your healthcare provider.
About 1% to 5% of people have one or more extra nipples, called supernumerary nipples. These extra nipples will not cause harm or need to be removed.
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Inverted nipples do not protrude, but are hidden beneath the surface of the skin. As a result, they may dent or be inhaled. Inverted nipples are usually a congenital condition you are born with.
Inverted nipples are caused by shortening of the milk ducts that pull the nipple tissue inward. Inverted nipples can still occur with protruding nipples, especially when stimulated. However, some inverted nipples never stick out. Although harmless, inverted nipples can make breastfeeding difficult.
A protruding nipple that is suddenly inverted, especially on one side, can be a sign of breast cancer and should be evaluated by your healthcare provider.
Some women are self-conscious about the appearance of their inverted nipples. Here are some options for reversing inverted nipples:
- For mild inversions, self-retracting devices and vacuum methods have been used. However, results are usually modest and usually not long-term.
- Plastic surgery can be done to reverse the inverted nipple. There are several different programs to choose from. If you’re interested in this approach, find a plastic surgeon with experience in treating inverted nipples.
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Flat nipples are not raised or inverted, but are flush with the areola. While some flat nipples become erect during cold temperatures, stimulation, or arousal, others always remain flat.
Women with flat nipples who plan to breastfeed may experience some difficulties. Moms can try gently pulling the nipple forward and “rolling” between the fingers to make the nipple stick out. Using a breast pump for a few seconds before breastfeeding can also help pull the nipple forward.
A nipple that initially protrudes but begins to pull in, change position, or fold into a narrow crease is called an acquired retracted nipple. Unlike inverted nipples, retracted nipples, Does not stand out when stimulated.
Nipple retraction may be due to aging, catheter dilation (when the milk ducts are swollen and blocked) or breast cancer. A mammogram, breast ultrasound, or breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will help diagnose the cause of nipple changes and guide your treatment.
Hair follicles surround the nipple, so it’s normal for a few strands to grow there. However, plucking or tweezing around the nipple can lead to ingrown hairs and infection of the follicles. Cutting or shaving are better options.
If you have more than a few strands of hair around your nipples and you notice hair growth in other areas, such as your face, this condition is called hirsutism.
Causes of excessive hair growth include:
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common disorder caused by hormonal imbalances
- Cushing’s syndrome, a disorder that occurs when the body is exposed to excess stress hormone called cortisol
- Excessive production of male hormones such as androgens
- Medications such as glucocorticoids and testosterone
Talk to your healthcare provider if you notice excessive hair growth on your nipples or other parts of your body.
Although most people have prominent nipples, their appearance can vary. Flat nipples and inverted nipples are changes that people are born with or develop as a result of aging. During puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, hormonal fluctuations can affect the appearance and sensitivity of your nipples.
It is normal to have a few hairs around the nipple, but excessive hair growth may indicate other conditions. Notify your healthcare provider of any nipple changes, especially if they happen suddenly or only on one side.
It is important to be familiar with the typical look and feel of nipples. A monthly breast self-exam is one approach. A sudden change in the shape of the nipple may signal breast cancer. Inverted, painful, leaky, or swollen nipple on one side should be reported to your healthcare provider right away. If caught early, breast cancer is not only treatable, but curable.
Many women worry that the size or shape of their nipples will make breastfeeding impossible. While flat and inverted nipples can pose challenges to breastfeeding, there are devices and techniques that can help babies latch onto the breast more easily. Referral to a lactation consultant is essential for all breastfeeding mothers.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How many types of nipples are there
There are three common types of nipples: prominent, flat, and inverted. Each of these changes can vary in appearance from person to person.
Which type of nipple is best for breastfeeding?
Protruding nipples can help a baby latch onto the breast more easily, but with the support of a lactation consultant, breastfeeding can be successful with any type of nipple.