We talk about breasts a lot. But what about nipples? They’re an important part of breasts and will often give us a signal when we have an underlying health issue. Because we don’t often see women’s nipples out in the open, it’s easy to think that all women’s nipples are or should be the same. But they vary greatly in size, shape, color—even number.
While we take good care of our breasts and schedule our mammograms, let’s not forget to give nipples the credit they’re due. If surgery has left you without one or both of your nipples, then there are some things on this list you might miss, but then again, there are probably some things you were glad to kiss goodbye. Check it out:
1. There are 4 Different Types of Nipples
Nipples can be flat, protruding, inverted, or divided, which means it seems they can’t really decide. About 10 to 20 percent of women have one or both nipples that are flat or inverted. And a set of nipples won’t necessarily match. One could be flat and the other protruding, or whatever combination nature decides.
2. Someone can have more than 2 nipples
Of course a woman who has undergone breast cancer surgery may choose to stick with one nipple or none rather than deal with reconstruction (for all about post-mastectomy nipples options, check out this article), but two nipples can also appear on one breast. The extra is called a double or a bifurcated nipple.
Sometimes both nipples may be able to produce milk, though depending on placement having two may create a challenge during breastfeeding. About 27 million people in the United States have a third nipple, and they often are mistaken for a mole or skin tag. They can be easily removed if someone thinks that three’s a crowd.
3. Nipple Discharge Can Be Normal
Nipple discharge can signal a cyst, infection, or other health concern, and you should definitely talk to your doctor if your nipples leak without being squeezed or rubbed, if there is blood, or if the leakage goes on for a week or ore.
But nipples often leak a clear or pale fluid when stimulated by exercise, sex, or friction. They may also leak when squeezed. In general it’s perfectly normal.
4. They can leak milk in response to seeing or hearing a baby
Most women know that a breast feeding mother can leak milk when it’s time to feed baby. But nursing mothers can leak even if they hear another person’s baby crying, and nursing mothers tend to have more success pumping if they at least have a picture of their baby within view.
5. Men’s Nipples Can Also Lactate
It’s true! Galactorrhea, or spontaneous lactation, can affect men, though rarely. It may be due to large hormone surges, but it hasn’t been widely studied.
6. Nipples Don’t Always Match
Breasts aren’t usually an exact match, and so it only makes sense that nipples aren’t. Your nipples can vary in size, shape, color, and placement. Nipples can also grow and change color over time due to age, weight gain, pregnancy, or hormonal changes. It’s normal—they each have their own personality!
7. Those Little Hairs Are normal
The little bumps on your areola (the raised, slightly darker ring around the nipple) are often hair follicles. About 30 percent of women have hair on their nipples. Feel free to tweeze or get laser hair removal if you’re not a fan of the hairs, but avoid shaving or waxing as those methods can cause ingrown hairs (and serious irritation).
8. The little bumps might also be oil glands
Some of the bumps on your areola are there to secrete oil to lubricate during pregnancy and lactation. They’re called Montgomery tubercles, and the oil they produce has antibacterial properties and may help attract an infant to the mother’s nipple.
9. They’re erogenous zones… sometimes very erogenous
Stimulated nipples can be a source of sexual pleasure for both women and men. One survey found that nipple-play enhanced arousal in 82 percent of women and 52 percent of men ages 27 to 29.
Nipples are packed with nerve endings that can be very sensitive to touch. Some women report being able to reach orgasm through nipple stimulation. Granted, very few women can reach the big-O through nipple-play, but it’s certainly nice to think about!
10. They can hurt
It’s not all fun and games when it comes to nipples. The same sensitivity that can be enjoyable in some contexts can cause major irritation in others. Chafing and rubbing from exercise (or any friction) can be painful, breastfeeding can cause pain, and being on your period can cause nipples to hurt. Ouch!
11. They can let you know about health concerns
Some discharge, pain, and irregular color is normal. But nipples are also an important gauge of health. At-home breast exams should include a thorough nipple check so that you are familiar with what’s normal and able to notice any changes.
Dry, itchy skin that doesn’t get better with at-home treatment could signal Paget’s disease, a rare skin cancer that affects the nipple and areola. Redness, swelling, and heat should also be checked out by a doctor as it could be a sign of a blocked milk gland. Any change that involves the thickening of the nipple or areola, dimpling, or consistent leaking or bleeding should be check out by a doctor. Pay attention when your nipples are trying to tell you something!
12. Some women prefer life without them
As important as nipples are, they may be sacrificed if a woman undergoes a mastectomy. Nipple reconstruction or tattooing is an option, but some women find there are many advantages to not having nipples and prefer to remain nip-free.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.