Why are my Nipples Hard (& Other Nipple Phenomenons)?
nipples hard

Why are my Nipples Hard? (And Other Nipple Phenomenons)

Nipples can be a sensitive subject––both figuratively and literally.

When the #FreeTheNipple movement began around 2014, many female celebrities and women alike took to social media and even the streets to express their opposition to censorship of the nipple. For a long time, nipples have been a target for women-shaming, but at the same time, they have also been a symbol of hypersexualization in mainstream media.

However, hiding your headlights isn’t always a choice, and for many women, nipples can be super sensitive for several different reasons.

NIPPY WEATHER

There is a scientific reason why your nipples get hard when it’s cold outside.

“Hard nipples happen normally when the weather is cold,” says Dr. Sherry A. Ross, Women’s Health Expert and Author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. “This is completely normal,” she says.

It’s kind of like getting goosebumps—when the hair stands up on your arms and legs. But with your nipples, neurons are activated by a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, which causes erector muscles on your skin to contract. It’s an external as much as an internal reaction.

“The areolas constrict so your nipples get hard and more prominent due to those muscle cell fibers in the areola cell. They respond to stimuli,” says Dr. Karen Horton, a San Francisco-based plastic surgeon who specializes in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery for women.

FYI, women aren’t the only ones who experience hardened nipples when it’s cold. More reason why there’s no shame in this body-temperature reaction!

‘PERIOD NIPPLES’

Hardening, tenderness, soreness, swelling, even stinging. There are many symptoms of menstruation that your breasts can experience—specifically your nipples.

“If women are finding that their nipples are more erect at a certain time of the month, it’s probably a combination of breast swelling due to hormonal changes,” says Dr. Horton.

The hormonal surge of estrogen causes your breast tissue, areola, and nipples to increase in size. This stimulates nipple tissue and can cause any uncomfortable nipple symptoms.

Dr. Sherry says that nipple sensitivity is most likely to occur one to two weeks before your period, and usually disappears by the time your period begins. But it’s not just your period that has the ‘nipple’ effect.

“Puberty, PMS, birth control, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause are all times when hormonal changes make nipples change in size, sensitivity and appearance,” says Dr. Sherry. “These hormonal changes will always occur in both nipples,” she says.

Nipple discomfort could have slightly different sensations. For example, prickling or tingling nipples could be an early sign of pregnancy.

SEXUAL AROUSAL

Because of its hypersensitivity, the nipple can also be a source of sexual pleasure for some women. Pleasure and stimulation can cause nipples to harden, too.

There is physiological evidence as to why this happens, according to the Boston University School of Medicine. When aroused, the breasts become engorged (yes, they get bigger), which increases blood flow to the areolas, causing them to enlarge. The slightest touch, pinch or squeeze could cause nipples to harden as a result of this, and for some women, it could even be orgasmic. But don’t feel left out if it doesn’t happen to you.

“Not everyone has the same sensitivity when nipples are stimulated by [being] gently touched or being kissed,” says Dr. Sherry.

NITPICKY NIPPLE THINGS

As women, we are often taught to self-examine our breasts by checking for lumps or abnormal patterns. But not often enough are we told to evaluate any irregularities to our nipples, which could also be warning signs of breast cancer, says Dr. Horton, who also specializes in breast cancer reconstruction.

But before getting nervous about your nipples, it’s not peculiar if the skin of your nipple appears shiny, scaly or flaky.

Some warning signs* that you should see your OB-GYN or family doctor as soon as possible:

  • If you have bloody nipple discharge
  • If your nipple is suddenly inverted opposed to sticking out
  • Change in nipple color or breast rash around the nipple
  • Because nipples are somewhat absorbent, you can get a bacterial or yeast infection. Although this is more common among breastfeeding mothers, if your nipples are pierced, know that they are more prone to this, and you should always get routine exams.

*Breastfeeding mothers should always seek medical help for nipple-related conditions, like nipple thrush.  

To alleviate any nipple-related pain or discomfort, both doctors suggest anti-inflammatory cream, moisturizing cream like extra virgin coconut oil, and good bra support. Keeping your nipples moisturized after exercise and showering is best, too. If the pain persists, take Ibuprofen and Tylenol.

In conclusion, although there’s no shame in nipple freedom now and then; it’s important to remember that our nipples and breasts need some routine support too. “The majority of the breast tissue is unsupported. With highly sensitive nerves layering breast tissue, aggressive movements and activities disrupt and tear the tissue, creating painful symptoms,” says Dr. Sherry. “Wearing the correct bra size with adequate support will prevent breast tenderness and nipple pain.”

Featured image by Charles Deluvio
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