What is a breast cyst?

While it may be scary to feel or learn you have a lump in your breast, it could just be a cyst. A breast cyst is a fluid-filled sac that forms in the duct system behind your nipple. A cyst is typically noncancerous and doesn’t require treatment unless it bothers you. Breast cysts are most common in women between 35 and 50 years old.

Types of breast cysts

Cysts can vary in size. Microcysts are so small they are undetectable. A macrocysts can feel like a grape or small water balloon. It is also very common to have multiple breast cysts at the same time.

There are three different types of breast cysts.

  • Simple

    Look and feel like balls and are simply filled with fluid. Simple cysts are not cancerous and are not a cause for concern.

  • Complicated

    Have tiny chambers or pockets created by membranes. Experts say complicated cysts appear to have “debris” floating in the fluid. Complicated cysts are highly unlikely to be cancerous, although you may be advised to have a follow-up exam.

  • Complex

    Have more solid membranes or walls in them and a higher chance of being cancerous. A biopsy is typically needed to determine if it is a cyst or cancer.

Where are breast cysts usually located?

Breast cysts are detectable anywhere in the breast. If you think of your nipple as a center point, there are up to 12 “branches” stemming out of it. Cysts can form in any of those branches.

Symptoms of breast cysts

You may not ever be able to feel a microcyst. However, some larger breast cysts can be painful and cause tenderness in the breast. You may also notice that the breast pain may fluctuate at different times in your menstrual cycle, as breast cysts can be hormone related. Sometimes the tenderness of your breast and the size of the cyst will increase before your period and decrease after.

Other symptoms include being able to feel and move the lump, as well as nipple discharge that can be clear, yellow or even dark brown.

When to see a doctor

If you have noticed skin changes on either of your breasts or a breast lump has not gone away or grown after one or two months, you should contact your doctor immediately. Your doctor will likely order an ultrasound or mammogram.

Breast cyst causes and risk factors

While the exact cause of breast cysts remains unknown, experts agree that fluctuating hormones cause the formation of cysts. This is why it’s most common for women between the ages of 35 and 50 to be prone to finding cysts. People taking hormone therapy, like postmenopausal women and transgender individuals, can also experience breast cysts, although this occurrence is less likely. If your family has a history of breast cysts, you may be more likely to have them yourself.

Diagnosing breast cysts

​​​​​​​​​​​​​Breast cysts are often discovered during a routine mammogram by a doctor. However, if you notice a lump in your breast that you think maybe a cyst, it’s important to have it checked. After a breast cyst has been detected, diagnosing it usually consists of a few steps, including a breast exam, followed by imaging, like an ultrasound or mammogram, and, if needed, a breast biopsy (or fine needle aspiration).

Breast exam

During your breast exam, you and your doctor will discuss your symptoms before examining the lump and looking for other abnormalities. Depending on the exam, your doctor will discuss what kind of imaging may be needed of your breast.

Imaging tests

Several imaging tests may be used to examine and diagnose a breast cyst. The most commonly used types of imaging tests are mammograms, breast ultrasounds and magnetic resonance imaging.

  • Mammogram: A mammogram uses low-dose X-rays to create images of the breast tissue and examine lumps, masses and abnormalities. A diagnostic mammogram assesses abnormalities, like cysts. These mammograms are more in-depth because they take more pictures of the breast at more angles than a screening mammogram.

  • Breast ultrasound: If you have dense breast tissue, the radiologist may also conduct a breast ultrasound to get a better look at the tissue. Ultrasound technology uses high-frequency sound waves to evaluate your breast tissue.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): If the mammogram and ultrasound images are unclear, your doctor may recommend a breast MRI to determine the type of breast cyst further. An MRI makes detailed pictures of your breast using strong magnets and radio waves.

Fine-needle aspiration

Your doctor may recommend extracting fluid from the breast cyst. This procedure is called a fine-needle aspiration, or breast cyst aspiration. However, if no fluid is drawn from the mass and it appears to be solid, the radiologist may recommend additional tissue sampling, also known as a breast biopsy.

Breast cyst treatment

Treatment for a breast cyst typically includes a breast cyst aspiration to drain the cyst. However, hormonal birth control and surgery are options for more severe breast cyst symptoms. Your doctor can work with you to determine the right treatment options.

  • Breast cyst aspiration

    A fine-needle aspiration is usually a quick outpatient procedure. Your doctor will first find the cyst using ultrasound before cleaning the skin and inserting a small needle to drain the cyst. Then the needle is removed and a small bandage applied. Oftentimes, an aspiration can make the cyst disappear altogether.

  • Hormone use

    For women with severe symptoms from breast cysts, sometimes hormonal birth control pills are recommended to reduce their recurrence. Although not very common, some people taking hormone replacement therapy may experience breast cysts. Have a conversation with your doctor about whether or not you should continue hormone therapy.

  • Surgery

    Other than aspiration, surgery is a very rare treatment of breast cysts. If the cysts are recurring or the fluid inside the breast is concerning, surgery may be a good option for you.

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Preguntas frecuentes

  • Are there ways to dissolve breast cysts naturally?

    While there is no evidence that anything can dissolve a breast cyst naturally, there are several things you can do at home and in everyday life to alleviate symptoms.

    • Take over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and soreness. However, if the pain persists, call your doctor.
    • Use a compress. A hot or cold compress on the area of your breast where you feel pain can help relieve pain.
    • A well-fitting bra can help relieve pain and discomfort. It doesn’t need to have an underwire, but make sure it provides plenty of support.
    • Eliminate or cut down on caffeine. There are no studies proving a correlation between cysts and caffeine, but some women do find improved symptoms after cutting out or back on caffeine.
  • Are breast cysts painful?

    Some cysts are painful, and some are not. Whether or not a cyst causes pain or tenderness depends on its size and where you are in your menstrual cycle. Cysts can feel more painful before a woman’s period and typically feel better after her period ends. Call your doctor if a cyst continues to be painful or if the pain increases.

  • Can a breast cyst turn into cancer?

    No, cysts are not cancerous, and there is no evidence that a cyst causes cancer or puts you at a higher risk of getting cancer. However, staying on top of your breast health with regular mammograms can help detect breast cancer at very early stages and give you peace of mind about your breast health.

  • Do breast cysts go away?

    About 70% of breast cysts go away on their own. Usually, doctors do not do anything to remove them unless they are causing pain or are a cause for concern.

  • How long do breast cysts last?

    Breast cysts come and go, and sometimes you won’t even know you have them. Since they are hormone-related, they tend to disappear permanently after menopause.