Last Updated October 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Leisa Bailey, MD

What is galactorrhea?

Galactorrhea occurs when one or both breasts make milk or a milky discharge. It’s not related to milk production in breastfeeding. The breasts may leak only when touched, or on their own. It can occur in women or in men but is less common in men. Rarely, it can occur in newborns.

Galactorrhea is not a disease but can be a symptom of an underlying health problem.

Symptoms of galactorrhea

The main symptom of galactorrhea is a milky white discharge from one or both nipples. Sometimes, the discharge is yellow or greenish in color. Blood in the discharge is not a symptom. If you have blood in the breast discharge, you should contact your doctor.

Other related symptoms may include:

  • An absence of menstrual periods or periods that aren’t regular
  • Headaches
  • Vision loss
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Increase in hair growth on your chin or chest
  • Erectile dysfunction in men

What causes galactorrhea?

There are many possible causes of galactorrhea. Someone who has it most likely has an underlying condition. Possible causes include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Oral birth control pills
  • Over stimulation of the breasts, such as during sexual activity
  • Frequent (daily) breast self-exams
  • Clothing that irritates the breasts (may include scratchy wool shirts or bras that don’t fit well)
  • Pituitary tumors. Often these are located in the pituitary gland in the brain. Most tumors are benign, meaning not cancerous.
  • Certain medicines. These can include hormones, antidepressants, blood pressure medicines, and sedatives
  • Herbal supplements. These can include nettle, fennel, blessed thistle, anise, and fenugreek seed
  • Drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and opiates
  • Kidney disease
  • An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). The thyroid is a gland that produces hormones.
  • Injury or trauma to your chest or spinal cord

In some cases, the cause of galactorrhea is unknown.

How is galactorrhea diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and review your symptoms. They will ask about your health history and lifestyle, and what medicines you take. Your doctor may order blood tests to check your hormone levels. For women, your doctor may order a pregnancy test. If the doctor suspects a tumor, they can order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). This test scans your head to see if you have a tumor or defect of the pituitary gland. Your doctor can order a mammogram and/or ultrasound to check for cancer.

Can galactorrhea be prevented or avoided?

You can’t prevent galactorrhea. However, once you know the cause, you may be able to avoid it.

Galactorrhea treatment

Treatment depends on the cause of galactorrhea. Benign tumors can be treated with medicine or surgery. Medicine can help if your body is producing too much of a hormone, such as prolactin. It also helps treat problems, such as hypothyroidism. If a certain medicine causes galactorrhea, your doctor may prescribe a different medicine.

Living with galactorrhea

In many cases, no treatment is necessary. Over time, the condition may go away on its own. Until then, there are some things you can do to help.

  • Avoid stimulating your breasts.
  • Avoid touching your nipples during sexual activity.
  • Don’t do breast self-exams more than once a month.
  • Avoid clothes that are too tight or rub and irritate your skin.
  • Wear pads in your bra (women) to absorb the milky discharge.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do tests help diagnose galactorrhea?
  • What’s the likely cause of my condition?
  • If I have galactorrhea, what is my risk of getting cancer?
  • What treatment options do you recommend?
  • Are there any lifestyle changes I can make to help relieve my symptoms?
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