– When surgeon Wendy R. Greene, MD, FACS, director of acute and critical care surgery at Emory University, Atlanta, asked a room of about 300 general surgeons at the annual clinical congress of the American College of Surgeons how many use needle aspiration first for breast abscesses, and how many use a scalpel, it was about a 50-50 split.

Dr. Wendy R. Greene, director of acute and critical care surgery, Emory University, Atlanta M. Alexander Otto/MDedge News

Dr. Wendy R. Greene

This divided response is why Dr. Greene addressed in her presentation the right approach to the problem of breast abscesses. In short, “for run-of-the-mill abscesses less than 5 cm, don’t get out the scalpel; get out the needle first,” she said.

Breast abscesses make women feel terrible. They have flulike symptoms, plus a warm, red, and tender bump on their breast. New mothers over age 30 years are most at risk, especially if they are past 40 weeks’ gestation.

There certainly are indications for the scalpel first. If the skin overlaying the abscess is dead, shiny, sloughing off, or leaking pus, or if the abscess is larger than 5 cm on ultrasound, a small stab incision is in order, and it should be made at the maximum point of fluctuation, after numbing the surrounding tissue. Put a wipe in place to catch the pus, debride as necessary, and “irrigate, irrigate, irrigate,” Dr. Greene said.

She uses suction to make sure all the pus is out, then injects a lidocaine into the cavity for pain control and lets it rest a few minutes before another round of suction.

Septic, deteriorating patients, and the immunocompromised, need a larger incision and drainage, with IV antibiotics in the hospital, but even in those cases, “avoid placing percutaneous drains; there’s rarely a role for them in modern management of breast abscesses.” Women will have poorer results and poorer cosmesis, Dr. Greene said.

Aggressive drainage isn’t necessary most of the time, and it can destroy healthy tissue and leave new mothers with breastfeeding problems and milk fistulas. There’s also a risk for scarring, deformity, and loss of the ability to lactate.

An 18-21 gauge needle with local anesthetic is usually enough. The lesion should be obvious on ultrasound, and it’s useful to guide the needle and ensure the cavity collapses on aspiration.

Dr. Greene said it also is important to culture milk in new mothers, and culture her infant’s nose and mouth, because cracked skin on the breast can let germs from nursing into the milk ducts.

Women are sent home after aspiration with antibiotics for 7-10 days, ones that are safe for nursing infants. They might be back with another abscess in a few weeks, so it’s important to be patient and ready for ongoing treatment.

The ultimate worry with recurrent cases is that a breast mass is blocking a milk duct, so mammography is often in order for repeat patients, especially with a family history of breast cancer. Wait until the acute infection has died down; a mammograph can be too painful otherwise, Dr. Greene said.

In the meantime, let infants nurse. They “are a great way to help drain the breast,” she said.

Dr. Greene had no relevant disclosures.