What is nipple discharge?

Updated: Aug 08, 2018
  • Author: Edward Azavedo, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Eugene C Lin, MD  more...
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Nipple discharge accounts for 2-10% of the symptoms that women report when they seek care at breast clinics, causing anxiety in patients because it can be a presenting sign of breast cancer. [1]   However, it is usually benign in origin (papillomas and galactophore duct ectasia), with a 5-21.3% risk of an underlying malignant lesion, mostly due to in situ carcinomas. [2]  If the discharge is considered to be physiologic on the basis of clinical information and characteristics of the nipple discharge, no further imaging studies of the breast are warranted. 

Although approximately 80-90% of patients with pathologic nipple discharge have been reported to have benign conditions, [1] breast imaging enables the localization of the breast abnormalities causing the pathologic nipple discharge, which helps minimize the number of operations and/or the extent of surgery. In addition, localizing the origin of pathologic nipple discharge enables percutaneous biopsy under imaging guidance, which allows clinicians to be more confident when deciding upon management and when choosing whether to perform minimally invasive percutaneous vacuum-assisted excision in these patients. [2]

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