Clinical Review

Evaluating and managing the patient with nipple discharge

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For patients with pathologic nipple discharge, order the appropriate imaging studies, perform image-guided biopsy if necessary, and refer to a breast surgeon when indicated



CASE Young woman with discharge from one nipple

A 26-year-old African American woman pre­sents with a 10-month history of left nipple discharge. The patient describes the discharge as spontaneous, colored dark brown to yellow, and occurring from a single opening in the nipple. The discharge is associated with left breast pain and fullness, without a palpable lump. The patient has no family or personal history of breast cancer.

Nipple discharge is the third most common breast-related symptom (after palpable masses and breast pain), with an estimated prevalence of 5% to 8% among premenopausal women.1 While most causes of nipple discharge reflect benign issues, approximately 5% to 12% of breast cancers have nipple discharge as the only symptom.2 Not surprisingly, nipple discharge creates anxiety for both patients and clinicians.

In this article, we—a breast imaging radiologist, gynecologist, and breast surgeon—outline key steps for evaluating and managing patients with nipple discharge.

Two types of nipple discharge

Nipple discharge can be characterized as physiologic or pathologic. The distinction is based on the patient’s history in conjunction with the clinical breast exam.

Physiologic nipple discharge often is bilateral, nonspontaneous, and white, yellow, green, or brown (TABLE).3 It often is due to nipple stimulation, and the patient can elicit discharge by manually manipulating the breast. Usually, multiple ducts are involved. Galactorrhea refers specifically to milky discharge and occurs most commonly during pregnancy or lactation.2 Galactorrhea that is not associated with pregnancy or lactation often is related to elevated prolactin or thyroid-stimulating hormone levels or to medications. One study reported that no cancers were found when discharge was nonspontaneous and colored or milky.4

Pathologic nipple discharge is defined as a spontaneous, bloody, clear, or single-duct discharge. A palpable mass in the same breast automatically increases the suspicion of the discharge, regardless of its color or spontaneity.2 The most common cause of pathologic nipple discharge is an intraductal papilloma, a benign epithelial tumor, which accounts for approximately 57% of cases.5

Although the risk of malignancy is low for all patients with nipple discharge, increasing age is associated with increased risk of breast cancer. One study demonstrated that among women aged 40 to 60 years presenting with nipple discharge, the prevalence of invasive cancer is 10%, and the percentage jumps to 32% among women older than 60.6

Breast exam. For any patient with nonlactational nipple discharge, we recommend a thorough breast examination. Deep palpation of all quadrants of the symptomatic breast, especially near the nipple areolar complex, should elicit nipple discharge without any direct squeezing of the nipple. If the patient’s history and physical exam are consistent with physiologic discharge, no further workup is needed. Reassure the patient and recommend appropriate breast cancer screening. Encourage the patient to decrease stimulation or manual manipulation of the nipples if the discharge bothers her.

Continue to: CASE Continued: Workup...


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