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Breast Cancer Rash: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Posted on July 11, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Nyaka Mwanza

A rash on the breast does not necessarily signal breast cancer. Many breast rashes are related to skin disorders that cause irritation all over the body, and others result from a condition that affects only the breast. However, a breast rash can also be a symptom of breast cancer or develop as a result of treatment.

What Is a Breast Rash?

A breast rash is an itchy or irritated area on the breast, often with changes in the skin’s appearance, texture, or color (pink or red in lighter skin and white, gray, or purple in darker skin). The skin may become inflamed or scaly, painful, or blistered. If a rash is caused by a minor skin condition, it usually can be easily managed at home. In other cases, a breast rash may be serious, and you should see your doctor for prompt diagnosis and treatment.

What Causes Breast Rash?

Breast disease, infection, injury, or irritation can cause a breast rash. The rash could be related to allergies (hives), a virus (shingles), or another skin condition (eczema or psoriasis) that can affect other parts of the body.

Certain forms of breast cancer include breast rash among their symptoms. These rashes tend to occur with less common or more aggressive types of breast cancer.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer

IBC can cause the skin of the breast to thicken, change color, become irritated, and dimple or pit. (Medical Images)

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is an aggressive, fast-growing type of breast cancer. IBC is rare, accounting for 1 percent to 5 percent of all breast cancers. With this disease, breast cancer cells enter and block lymph vessels, which causes symptoms including:

  • Thickened skin
  • Rash or skin irritation
  • Discoloration and swelling
  • Dimpled or pitted skin (caused by fluid buildup)

The symptoms of IBC are easily mistaken for those of other breast conditions, which contributes to delayed diagnosis and even later treatment. When diagnosed, around one-third of women with IBC have metastatic breast cancer.

Paget’s Disease

Paget’s disease can result in crusty or flaky skin that resembles eczema. The nipple may become flattened or inverted. (DermNet NZ)

A rare form of breast cancer, Paget’s disease makes up between 1 percent and 4 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses. Paget’s disease affects the skin of the nipple and sometimes the areola. Usually, this type of breast cancer also involves at least one tumor, most often ductal carcinoma in situ or invasive breast cancer.

Symptoms of Paget’s disease include:

  • Itching, tingling, or discoloration of the nipple or areola
  • Crusty, flaky, or thickened skin that may resemble eczema
  • A flattened or inverted nipple
  • Bloody or yellowish discharge from nipple

Side Effect of Breast Cancer Treatment

Radiation dermatitis is a common skin reaction during and after radiation therapy for breast cancer. It can cause redness, peeling, and the death of skin cells. (Medical Images)

Sometimes a treatment, not the cancer itself, leads to a rash. Many medications have the potential to cause a rash as a side effect, including breast cancer treatments such as:

  • Chemotherapy — An agent, such as daunorubicin and methotrexate, designed to either kill cancer cells or slow their growth
  • Radiation therapy — A localized cancer treatment (also called radiotherapy) that kills cancer cells via high-energy rays
  • Hormone therapy — Medications that block cancer cells’ supply of natural hormones such as estrogen and progesterone
  • Targeted therapy — Treatment that hones in on cancer cells, sparing surrounding healthy cells and producing fewer side effects
  • Immunotherapy — A drug such as pembrolizumab (Keytruda) that boosts the immune system to help it fight off the cancer cells

Some pain medications also can cause a rash.

Noncancerous Breast Conditions

Mastitis may cause swelling, redness in pale skin or purple in dark skin, warmth, and pain in the breasts of women who are lactating. (Medical Images)

Sometimes a breast infection or other noncancerous condition can produce a rash. A breast rash could result from:

  • Mastitis — Inflammation of the breast, usually experienced by breastfeeding women who have a blocked milk duct
  • Breast abscess — Buildup of pus caused by a breast infection
  • Mammary duct ectasia — Condition that arises when a milk duct widens and its walls get thicker, which can lead to a blocked or clogged duct

Treatments for Breast Rash

Once a doctor determines the cause of your breast rash, it can be treated. This could involve both medical approaches to address cancer and at-home measures to relieve discomfort.

Medical Interventions for Breast Cancer Rash

A rash that is due to a type of breast cancer or side effects of treatment may call for medicated creams or ointments, such as topical corticosteroids. If your breast rash is a symptom of the cancer itself, treating the cancer may help alleviate your rash.

Treatment for inflammatory breast cancer may include some combination of the following:

  • Chemotherapy to shrink the cancer
  • Surgery, such as lumpectomy or mastectomy, to remove lymph nodes, cancerous breast tissue, and tissue from surrounding areas
  • Radiation therapy to kill cancer cells remaining in the armpit and breast area after surgery

At-Home Remedies for Breast Cancer Rash

Many methods to help relieve the discomfort of breast cancer rashes don’t require a prescription or medical intervention. Some at-home strategies include:

  • Changing up your bathing ritual — Shorten your time in the shower or tub, and use cooler water (lukewarm instead of hot). Pat dry gently instead of rubbing vigorously.
  • Hydrating your skin — Use unscented, thicker moisturizing creams or lotions to ward off dryness itching. Apply while your skin is still a little damp.
  • Protecting the rash — Keep the affected area clean, dry, and (if necessary) properly dressed.
  • Addressing irritation — Apply a cool washcloth or ice to ease dryness and soothe itchiness.
  • Using products for sensitive skin — Choose mild, unscented, alcohol-free soaps and lotions, which are less likely to irritate.

Note: Don’t use heating pads, ice packs, or bandages on a rash that is the result of radiotherapy. Also, if you are undergoing radiation therapy, ask your health care provider which skin products, such as talcum powder or antiperspirant, you should avoid.

When To See Your Doctor About Breast Rash

Self-diagnosing your breast rash can be difficult and even dangerous. Treating a serious condition such as breast cancer as soon as possible is key to ensuring the most treatment options, experiencing good treatment outcomes, and achieving remission.

Contact your health care provider if you experience a breast rash that:

  • Is accompanied by symptoms such as blisters, infection, fever, a lump in your breast or armpit, or swelling of the throat
  • Occurs with breast pain
  • Doesn’t improve after a reasonable period of treatment

In addition, see your health care provider for any rash that comes on suddenly and spreads quickly or covers much of your body.

Above all, trust your gut. If you have any concerns or lingering doubts, schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine the cause of your breast rash. It’s always better to be safer than sorry.

Talk With Others Who Understand

Was your breast cancer diagnosed because you sought medical attention for a rash? Do you have any advice for managing breast cancer rash? Comment below or join MyBCTeam to add to or start a conversation. MyBCTeam is the social network for people living with or caring for those with breast cancer.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Nyaka Mwanza has worked with large global health nonprofits focused on improving health outcomes for women and children. Learn more about her here.

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