Benign breast lumps

Expert Reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due February 2023

Breast lumps are swellings or areas of thicker tissue in your breasts. You might feel a lump in your breasts when you’re checking them. Or a routine breast screening mammogram might discover a lump you hadn’t noticed.

Most breast lumps are benign (non-cancerous). But it’s important to see your GP if you find a lump in your breast or notice any unusual breast symptoms.

Image showing the structures of the breast

About breasts and breast lumps

The size and shape of breasts vary, and everyone’s breasts are different. They’re mostly made up of fatty tissue and glandular tissue. The glandular tissue produces milk when you’re breastfeeding. Tiny milk ducts (tubes) carry milk from the glandular tissue to the nipple. A 'tail' of breast tissue goes up into your armpit.

In women, breasts are affected by hormones. They change size and shape throughout your monthly cycle and when you’re pregnant. This means breasts can feel tender, heavy, and lumpy. This usually happens just before your period and goes back to normal once it starts. It’s normal for many women to feel lumpy areas in their breasts which come and go as their hormones change. But, if a lump appears and doesn’t go, see your GP for advice.

Men can get breast lumps too. See our FAQ on breast lumps in men for more information.

Types of benign breast lumps

There are many different types of benign breast lump. Most are either fibroadenomas or cysts.

  • Fibroadenomas. These are solid growths of tissue which may move underneath your fingers as you check your breast. They’re not sore when you touch them. Fibroadenomas are the most common type of benign breast lump and you’re most likely to get one between the ages of 16 and 24.
  • Cysts. These are round sacs of fluid that build up in your breast tissue. You can have one or more cysts and they vary in size. You’re most likely to get them between the ages of 35 and 50 and they can come and go.

Other, less common, causes of benign breast lumps include the following.

  • Breast infection (mastitis or an abscess). This can sometimes develop if you’re breastfeeding and may be painful and cause breast lumps and swelling.
  • Phyllodes tumour. This is a type of breast lump that is usually benign, but can be malignant (cancerous). You’re most likely to get this if you’re aged between 40 and 50.
  • Fat necrosis. These are firm lumps that are usually due to scar tissue forming after an injury to your breast. It’s most common in women with large breasts.
  • Sclerosing adenosis. This is usually a small, painful and firm lump. This type of lump is sometimes found on a mammogram during breast screening. You can develop sclerosing adenosis at any age, but it’s more common in your 30s or 40s.
  • Duct ectasia. This can develop around the time of the menopause, if the ducts under your nipples get blocked. This can cause your nipple to turn inwards and a lump to develop under it. Some women have a blood-stained discharge from their nipple too.
  • Intraductal papilloma. Wart-like lumps (papillomas) form within one or more of the ducts just behind your nipple. You may also have a blood-stained discharge from your nipple. Intraductal papilloma is most common in women over 40.

Symptoms of benign breast lumps

Benign breast lumps can appear anywhere in your breast. They may or may not be painful, and can be large or small. Sometimes a lump can develop alongside other symptoms too.

See your GP if you develop any of the following symptoms.

  • A lump or thickening in your breast or armpit.
  • A change in the size, shape or feel of your breasts.
  • Dimpling, puckering or redness of the skin on your breast.
  • A change in the shape or position of your nipple – for instance, if it starts turning inwards towards your breast (becomes inverted).
  • A rash around your nipple area.
  • Discharge from one or both nipples.
  • Pain that doesn’t go away in one part of your breast or armpit.

Although most breast lumps are found to be benign (non-cancerous), these symptoms can sometimes be a sign of breast cancer. So, it’s important to get any unusual symptoms you notice checked by a doctor.

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Diagnosis of benign breast lumps

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. They may also ask you about your family history and whether a close relative has had breast cancer.

Your GP may ask you to come back for another appointment at a different time in your menstrual cycle if they think the changes may be related to your hormones. This is because lumps can come and go at certain times in your cycle.

If you have a breast lump, you’ll usually need to have further tests to check whether your lump is caused by cancer or something else. Your GP will refer you to a doctor at a hospital or specialist breast clinic to have these tests. What tests you need will depend on what symptoms you have and your age. You may be asked to have a:

  • mammogram – this is an X-ray of your breast
  • ultrasound – this produces an image of the inside of your breast
  • fine needle aspiration or biopsy – this is a sample of cells taken from the breast lump, which is then sent to a laboratory to be tested

Treatment of benign breast lumps

The treatment for benign breast lumps depends on what the lumps are. Many lumps won't need treatment unless you’re having symptoms or the lump is particularly big.

  • You may not need any treatment if you have a fibroadenoma, unless it’s very large. If the lump is bigger than 4cm across, your doctor may suggest you have it removed.
  • Cysts can be drained (aspirated) with a needle. Sometimes, cysts go away on their own without treatment.
  • If you have an abscess or other infection, your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics for you. You may need to have your abscess drained using a needle or a small incision (cut).
  • If you have a phyllodes tumour, your doctor will recommend an operation to remove it. This is because they can develop into cancer.
  • Fat necrosis lumps tend to disappear on their own without treatment.
  • Sclerosing adenosis doesn’t usually need any treatment, unless you need painkillers for symptoms such as pain.
  • If you have duct ectasia, you probably won’t need treatment, unless there’s a lot of discharge from your nipple, or your nipple is turned inwards. If this happens, you may need an operation to remove the blocked duct.
  • If you have an intraductal papilloma, your doctor will probably recommend that you have a surgical procedure to remove the papilloma and the duct it’s lying in.

Talk to your doctor for advice about which treatment is most suitable for you.

Causes of benign breast lumps

Benign (non-cancerous) lumps in your breast can develop for several different reasons.

  • Changes in hormones. Your hormone levels can affect your breasts and may cause cysts, fibroadenoma and the lumps that come and go before and during your period.
  • Injury to your breast, which can lead to fat necrosis.
  • Problems during breastfeeding, which may lead to infection (mastitis) or an abscess.

If you're pregnant

If you're pregnant, your breasts will change while your baby is developing, to get ready for breastfeeding. Your breasts may get bigger and feel sore and tender. Sometimes, benign breast lumps can develop or get bigger during pregnancy. Or a lump that was already there may become hidden as your breasts get bigger.

The most common breast lumps during pregnancy are:

  • cysts
  • fibroadenomas
  • milk-filled cysts called galactocoeles

Breast cancer is rare during pregnancy. But if a breast lump is cancer, it can grow very quickly. So, if you do notice a breast lump when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s important to get it checked by a doctor as soon as you can.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes, men can develop benign (non-cancerous) lumps in their breast tissue as part of a condition called gynaecomastia. This is where the breast tissue starts to grow because of an imbalance between the hormones oestrogen and testosterone. Gynaecomastia is very common in newborns, during puberty or when you become elderly. Other causes of this hormone imbalance include obesity and certain medicines. And it can be linked to a wide range of medical conditions.

    If you have gynaecomastia, lumpy breast tissue can be felt underneath your nipple and the breast sometimes gets bigger. Lumps can develop in one or both breasts and can sometimes be tender and sore.

    Gynaecomastia may go away on its own and is benign (non-cancerous), so doesn’t usually need treatment. If it’s painful, or causing you great embarrassment, your doctor may recommend medicines or sometimes even surgery.

    If you notice a change in the look or feel of your breast, contact your GP. Almost all breast lumps in men are benign; however, it’s possible for men to get breast cancer.

  • Your breasts do change as you get older. When you reach the menopause, the amount of glandular tissue in your breasts reduces because of hormone changes. The amount of fatty tissue increases. This can make your breasts feel different, and some women find they’re softer and less firm. As you come up to the menopause, you may find your breasts feel tender and lumpy, but this often changes once you’re past the menopause.

    Some women develop a condition called duct ectasia around the time of the menopause. This is when a duct underneath your nipple becomes swollen and blocked. See our section on types of benign breast lumps above for more information. Duct ectasia is non-cancerous and can be treated with an operation to remove the blocked ducts. However, the symptoms of duct ectasia are similar to breast cancer, so it’s important to see your GP if you notice any unusual changes to your breasts.

  • Calcium lumps (breast calcifications) are small spots of calcium salts. They’re very common and develop as you get older. You probably won’t be able to feel them – they’re usually found when women have a mammogram.

    Calcium lumps are usually benign and harmless. However, some patterns of calcium lumps can be an early sign of breast cancer. If you have calcium lumps, your doctor may ask you to have more tests.

The mammogram component of the breast check is only available for women aged 40+
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  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, February 2020
    Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due February 2023