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mastitis and cabbage leaves | mastitis home remedies

Cabbage leaves for mastitis 

With the numbers of women that experience the hell that is mastitis, for many of them cabbage leaves on the breast have been suggested to relieve the mastitis symptoms. Despite the patchy evidence around for the use of cabbage leave for mastitis, they continue to be a got-to remedy suggested by lactation consultants & midwives for decades, as well as countless website as you would have seen when you searched this topic. 

Given a breastfeeding mother’s feelings of desperation when mastitis gets a hold of the breast, it’s pretty common that women will try anything for relief, cabbage leaves included, as it’s one of the most popular at-home treatments for breastfeeding issues. Cabbage leaves are affordable, easy to use, and available pretty much anywhere. But are they useful? 

What does the evidence say about cabbage leaves & mastitis? 

Although it sounds a bit strange, cabbage leaves have some basis in science. It is thought that there is an anti-inflammatory compound in the leaves and that this may influence the breast tissue inflammation of mastitis when the leaf is in contact with the skin of the breast.  

The thing is though, there is little evidence that we can find to support the use of cabbage leaves for mastitis to hasten recovery so whether this anti-inflammatory property does anything is still a mystery. But that’s not to say they haven’t got any use. 

So, is it ok to still use cabbage leaves? 

There is no evidence to say you should not so go right ahead. A few reasons women find relief from cabbage leaves could simply be that the shape of the leaf is a wonderful fit for many breast sizes, like the breast is being cupped by the leaf. And when you have mastitis, given the red-hot symptoms, a cabbage leave from the refrigerator can bring some welcomed relief. So just pop that whole cabbage in the fridge and take a leaf at a time, it’s that simple. The leaf will warm up from your body temperature especially if you have a fever with the mastitis. Simply throw it in the compost and grab another. 

Really, there’s no major reason NOT to use cabbage leaves. They are cheap, readily available, unlikely to cause any harm and could be very soothing. 

Cabbage leaves for mastitis, how does it work? 

So how do the leaves work? The key may lie in the fact that cabbages contain a substance known as glucosinolates. Enzyme action converts these glucosinolates to pungent isothiocyanates, collectively referred to as mustard oil. And mustard oil has long been used as a home remedy for swelling. But once again the evidence to prove this is not solid.  

It’s possible someone knew these compounds existed in cabbage leaves and then heard they relieve mastitis symptoms, put 2 and 2 together and came up with this idea. Either way, if you have tried cabbage leaves and feel relief, there is also nothing to say don’t use them. Get the relief you need from mastitis and that can include cabbage leaves.  

And then there’s cabbage leaf cream. Does that work? 

In Australia, a study investigated the use of cabbage leaf extract in a cream to treat breast engorgement. Not surprisingly given what we have already shared about evidence of cabbage leaves, the extract cream and a placebo cream were both effective in relieving discomfort of engorgement, and both groups showed no differences to each other. Given these results, it is possible that the relief was from rubbing the cream into the breast, as it’s quite known that massage does impact the symptoms of engorgement (and mastitis for that matter). 

Frozen cabbage leaves for mastitis 

Cold has long been a useful reliever of pain with mastitis. A common question is “are cabbage leaves from the freezer better than cabbage leaves from the refrigerator?” 

Well, it really is a personal preference on how cold the mastitis sufferer wants the leaf. One thing to note is not to use anything cold on the breast just prior to pumping or feeding as this will impact the milk flow from the breast. Warmth is a better option before draining the breast. Warmth will  

Risks of Cabbage Leaves for Mastitis 

  1. Obviously avoid cabbage leaves if you have allergies to cabbage or sulpha. Just stick to cold compresses to lessen pain.  
  1. It’s best not to apply cabbage to broken skin to avoid the risk of infection especially if you have cracked nipples.  
  1. If your mastitis symptoms are not improving after 36-48 hours, you might need antibiotics. Cabbage leaves can help reduce discomfort from inflammation and engorgement, but they can’t treat a mastitis infection. So, if your symptoms continue or worsen in severity (vomiting, diarrhoea, fainting), you might need antibiotics so seek medical advice. 

What is suggested when using cabbage leaves for mastitis? 

  1. Wash a fresh head of green cabbage and place cabbage in refrigerator to chill 
  1. Just before you use it, crush the veins with a rolling pin or similar object or slice off the tops of the “veins” with a sharp knife, just to make the leaves shape to your breast more easily. 
  1. Drape one or two leaves over each breast, covering ALL of the affected area. Leave on until they become wilted, about 20 to 30 minutes. Repeat three or four times within a 24 hour period. This will usually be within one to two days. 
  1. Compresses can be used as often as every 4 hours, but care should be taken as there is indication that cabbage leaves can work TOO well and end up reducing mother’s milk supply. 

What else can I use if I cannot get cabbage leaves? 

An ice pack or cold gel pack will do the trick, even a cold, wet cloth on the breast will provide some relief. Have a container of iced or cold water next to you so you can easily re-cool it when it feels like it’s warmed up. A simple mastitis relieving home remedy. 

Using cabbage leaves for engorgement? 

There has actually been quite a lot of research in engorgement and cabbage leaves with some promising outcomes. Given the scientific research that cabbage leaves may reduce pain of engorgement without side-effects, and that use of cabbage leaves increases breastfeeding duration, plus a large body of anecdotal evidence from lactation consultants and midwives, cabbage leaves for engorgement will continue to be suggested. 

What other home remedy is useful for mastitis? 

Mastitis swelling is often thought to be milk but it’s simply not the case. Mastitis is fluid congestion in the breast tissue itself, outside the duct system. It’s commonly thought that pumping or feeding extra often from the breast will drain the mastitis away when in fact you will probably just traumatise tissue that is already under stress. You should continue draining what milk is in your breast in your regular routine however don’t expect the mastitis swelling to recede because as already mentioned, the swelling of mastitis is outside the duct system and is not actually milk.  

So how to remove the swelling? That takes a proper massage strategy to address the breast tissue drainage of inflammatory fluid. Given this only involves your hands, it’s another inexpensive option for mastitis treatment. If you need guidance with this, our practitioners are available 6 days per week at the Melbourne Mastitis Clinic. And if geography is an issue, try our online education with Your Two Jugs for our Mastitis Rescue course or Boobology. Check them out HERE. 

References: 

Betzold, C. M. (2007). An update on the recognition and management of lactational breast inflammation. Journal of midwifery & women’s health, 52(6), 595-605. 

Roberts, Kathryn: A comparison of chilled cabbage leaves and chilled gelpacks in reducing breast engorgement. Journal of Human Lactation 11(1), 1995; 17-20 

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