Women in the United States with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, should not breastfeed. But what about those with other sexually transmitted infections, like herpes? The answer is a little more complex than a simple “yes” or “no.”
Let’s take a closer look at herpes and whether this infection is a contraindication to breastfeeding.
What Is Herpes?
Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection known medically as herpes simplex virus, or HSV. There are two types:
- Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)
- Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2)
While either type can cause genital or mouth/lip herpes, HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes and HSV-1 usually causes herpes on the mouth—a.k.a. cold sores or fever blisters.
Causes of Herpes of the Breast
While herpes usually infects the mouth/lips and genitals, it can infect any part of the skin. Though uncommon, this can include the breast.
Herpes is spread through contact with someone else with the herpes infection. For instance, genital herpes is transmitted through genital-genital contact or genital-oral contact with another person who has herpes.
In the case of herpes of the breast, the skin of the breast must have come in contact with the infected skin of another person with herpes.
It’s important to note that the virus can be present on the skin without an obvious herpes sore. This means that a person can pass herpes to someone else even if they have no symptoms or signs of infection.
What Herpes of the Breast Looks and Feels Like
Herpes on the breast looks like tiny fluid-filled bumps on a red base that are tender. Some people will experience flu-like symptoms with a herpes outbreak, especially the first one. Future outbreaks may occur, but they almost always last a shorter time and are not as painful.
In people with HIV, herpes outbreaks can be more severe and last longer due to their impaired immune system.
It’s important to see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis, as herpes of the breast can resemble a yeast or bacterial infection or plugged milk ducts.
The Safety of Breastfeeding With Herpes
If a woman has herpes on her body, but not her breast, breastfeeding is safe. The virus cannot pass through a woman’s body into her milk.
On the other hand, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if a woman has herpes sores on her breast, she should not breastfeed.
However, she can express or pump milk from that breast, as long as the parts of the breast pump that touch the milk do not come in contact with the herpes sores. If this occurs, the milk must be discarded.
Risks of Feeding From a Breast With Herpes Sores
A baby who nurses on a breast with herpes sores is at risk of developing a life-threatening infection of his or her nervous system.
If a woman suspects or has been diagnosed with herpes of the breast, it’s critical she stop nursing from the affected breast.