Both men and women can experience nipple issues. Depending on the cause, the nipples may feel itchy or sore, and the skin may appear cracked or flaky.
Most causes of dry or itchy nipples are harmless and temporary. Causes range from chafing to hormonal changes. In females, dry nipples can be related to pregnancy and breastfeeding.
In rare cases, nipple changes can be linked to breast cancer or Paget’s disease of the breast, so it is important to know the warning signs.
This article discusses the common causes of dry nipples in men and women, how to relieve symptoms, and prevention tips.
What causes dry nipples?
The following sections discuss the possible causes and other symptoms.
Chafing may cause a person to have dry nipples.
The nipples are a very delicate area of tissue on the human body.
When the nipples rub against clothing or other objects, they can become dry and chapped. This can occur while exercising or during sexual activity for both men and women.
When the nipples are chafed, a person will typically experience dry, cracked nipples along with some pain on or around the nipples.
In severe cases, the nipples may bleed, such as after long-distance running.
Chafing may affect people more severely during winter months, as cold weather can make the skin more prone to dryness.
Candida albicans is a fungus that causes yeast infections, or thrush. Nipple thrush is less common in males than females.
Yeast infections can occur in the nipples for several reasons, including:
- having had dry nipples previously
- having nipples that are cracked or bleeding
- having recently used antibiotics
Thrush thrives in warm, damp environments, so keeping the nipples dry and cool can help prevent thrush from occurring. Changing shirts and bras regularly can help prevent yeast infections.
In addition to dryness, thrush can cause the following symptoms:
- burning, itching, stinging, or tender nipples
- flaky skin on or around the nipple
- shiny skin on or around the nipple
- a burning sensation that often follows breastfeeding
- a deep aching, shooting, or stabbing pain in the nipple or breast
- cracked nipples
- flushed areola and nipple
- a rash
When a foreign object or substance comes into contact with parts of the skin, it can cause an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis. A person’s nipples can also experience contact dermatitis.
Common causes of contact dermatitis include:
- synthetic materials in clothing
In addition to dry nipples, contact dermatitis can cause symptoms such as:
- flushing and swelling
- pain or discomfort
Eczema refers to a group of inflammatory skin conditions. The term most commonly refers to a condition called atopic dermatitis.
Atopic dermatitis affects 7.2 percent of adults and 13 percent of children in the United States. It usually affects the hands but can occur anywhere on the body, including the nipples.
Hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle can affect the breasts, and they might lead to tenderness, dryness, and itching in some people. This is due to natural changes in the levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body.
Hormone-related nipple dryness or itchiness is not a cause for concern and will likely go away during the next phases of the menstrual cycle.
Paget’s disease and cancer
Paget’s disease of the breast is a rare condition associated with breast cancer.
It causes a dry, scaly rash around the nipple, and some people mistake it for eczema. Paget’s disease usually suggests that a person has underlying breast cancer.
Breast cancer will typically only affect one of the nipples.
The main symptoms of Paget’s disease include:
- flaking or scaly skin on the nipple that does not heal
- yellowish or bloody nipple discharge
- a suddenly inverted nipple
- tingling or itching around the nipple
Although breast cancer can affect men, it is more common in women. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, less than 1 percent of total breast cancer cases occur in men.
Treatments and remedies
Moisturizing creams may help to relieve nipple dryness.
In most cases, people can relieve nipple dryness and other symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) treatments or home remedies.
When chafing occurs from exercise, sexual activity, or other forms of friction, some simple treatments include:
- resting from the activity causing the irritation
- wearing softer materials
- wearing a more supportive bra
- using moisturizing creams, ointments, or nipple creams such as lanolin
- using colloidal oatmeal, which may reduce dryness and inflammation
People can choose from a wide selection of nipple creams online.
A person should see their doctor if they suspect that thrush or cancer is causing nipple dryness. Antifungal creams can treat nipple thrush, and a doctor can recommend treatments for cancers.
Dry nipples and pregnancy
Pregnancy can cause the nipples to become tender, sore, and dry.
Hormonal fluctuations are a major factor in causing a woman’s nipples to become dry or irritated during pregnancy.
As estrogen and progesterone levels change, the breasts experience several changes, such as:
Dry nipples and breastfeeding
Breastfeeding can also cause dry, chapped, or sore nipples. Around 80–90 percent of women experience nipple pain and fissures as a result of breastfeeding.
Infants often suckle aggressively. This, combined with the frequency of their feeds, can leave the nipples feeling sore, chapped, and dry.
In addition, breastfeeding can leave a woman more susceptible to thrush that can pass back and forth between the baby’s mouth and the nipples.
There are some steps that people can take to prevent the common causes of dry nipples. They include:
- During exercise, wear shirts that do not rub against the nipples. Try changing the bra, as some materials can cause friction that leads to dry, irritated nipples.
- Placing adhesive bandages over the nipples before working out or running can help protect them from chafing.
- Avoid stimulating the nipples when they are feeling dry or chafed, as this may make the irritation worse.
- For people allergic to certain materials and substances, avoiding the allergen is the best way to prevent dry nipples from occurring. If contact occurs, wash the substance away as soon as possible.
- People can help prevent thrush by keeping their nipples cool, dry, and clean.
- Lead a healthy lifestyle to prevent conditions that affect the breast, including cancers. Eating a healthful diet rich in vegetables and fruits, avoiding excessive drinking, not smoking, and getting regular exercise will all help.
Dry nipples are common and the causes are usually harmless.
If a person experiences nipple discharge, pain, or tenderness lasting for more than a few days, they should see their doctor for an examination.
There are many ways a person can help prevent dry nipples. If nipple dryness does occur, a person can usually treat it at home with OTC creams, ointments, and rest.