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Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Your Nipples

If I learned one thing from watching on Friends as a teen in the ’90s, it’s that one should never ask questions about one’s nipples. When Chandler confessed he had a third nipple, or a “nubbin” as he called it, it became its own story arc. So when I started to get breasts, I just assumed everything fine until proven otherwise.

Ignorance is not bliss, as I discovered why I randomly starting leaking what I was sure was milk despite not being pregnant or nursing. I was convinced I had cancer and was dying. Thankfully a quick trip to the doc showed it wasn’t milk and was normal, thanks to hormone fluctuations from puberty. Non-lactating nipples can squirt stuff? Who knew? Clearly, I should have been asking more questions.

Nipples — we’ve all got ’em. And yet how much do you know about yours, really? Most of us don’t pay much attention to them unless there’s something really wrong (or something really right!) going on there. But it turns out our nips can tell us a lot—especially if you’re female and in possession of breasts. The trick is you just have to ask the right questions. Fortunately for you, I’m not easily embarrassed so I asked Debra Patt, MD, a gynecologist and breast cancer expert with Texas Oncology, a practice in The US Oncology Network, all the embarrassing questions I could think of. You’re welcome.

1. What color(s) should healthy nipples be? Or rather, is there any color they shouldn’t be?

Nipples come in lots of varied shades and sizes, Patt says, and are usually darker than the rest of your skin but beyond that, whatever your natural pigmentation is, is totally normal. Plus, according to the intrepid beauty writers at XO Jane, it can even help you find your perfect “my lips but better” lipstick shade, by matching your lips to your nips. (Pro tip: Take a picture on your phone to use at the store rather than constantly peering down your shirt. I may or may not know this from experience. Ahem.) The only time you need to be concerned about your nipple color, Patt says, is if it changes suddenly or you develop patches or spots.

2. How sensitive is too sensitive? What if a woman has a hard time wearing a bra or pajama shirt because it irritates her nipples?

There are hundreds of nerve endings in each nipple and while men and women have roughly the same number, women’s are more spread out and are generally more sensitive to stimuli thanks to our hormones. Because of this Patt says they’re easily irritated or stimulated by lots of things, clothing included. But contrary to being problematic, this can work in your favor as some women report reaching orgasm from nipple stimulation alone.

3. What are those little bumps on the areola?

The areola is the colored circle around the nipple and has sebaceous glands that surround the nipple that individuals may see as bumps, Patt says. These are normal and necessary for keeping your skin healthy. As long as there aren’t any changes and they’re not itchy, red or inflamed she says there is no reason to be concerned about them.

4. Nipple hair. Is this a thing? And if so, is it safe to remove it? (Asking for a friend…)

Sprouting a few wiry hairs around your nipples is something that most mammals do, both males and females, and humans are no different. Despite seeing only perfectly hairless (and smooth and round and perky and huge) breasts in porn or in advertising, one in three women have a few nipple pubes. (At least that’s how many will admit to having them. I’m guessing the actual number is much higher.) But not many girls like their little black, curly bosom buddies and Patt says it’s fine to wax, shave or pluck those suckers. Just don’t use Nair or other depilatory creams as they can cause irritation and inflammation.

5. My nipples look different than they used to. Will they ever go back to their old shape/size/color?

Pregnancy, puberty and aging can do a number on our breasts and our nipples are not immune from the effects. In fact, pregnancy can make your cute, tiny nips into heaving beasts with a mind of their own, becoming much (much) larger and darker. It’s all normal, Patt says, but she’s sorry to tell you that the color changes will likely be permanent. The size and texture changes will also remain, to a point.

6. When should we expect things to come out of our nipples?

The whole point of having (female) nipples is to lactate to feed babies, right? And that’s exactly when you’ll notice the most leakage, Patt says. But while it’s normal to have some discharge during pregnancy, while breastfeeding (two words: boob sprinklers), and up to a year after weaning your baby, any other time probably needs to be evaluated by a doctor. Random discharge can be indicative of a problem in the breast or the pituitary gland, she explains.

7. Is it safe to pierce or tattoo nipples?

Considering the amount of people that pierce and tattoo their nipples it seems like it would be fine but there are some risks you should consider, according to Christina Charbonneau, a fellow in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. First, due to all the nerve endings and milk ducts in that area, any needles risk damaging those — permanently. Second, the healing period is much longer than for other areas of the body. Charbonneau says it takes 4 to 7 months for a piercing to completely heal and during that time you have to avoid public swimming pools and oral stimulation of your breasts as this area of your body is particularly prone to infection. If you do decide to turn your nips into wearable art, she says to make sure it’s done under sanitary conditions and by a trained professional.

8. Can you see breast cancer in your nipples?

You can’t tell if you have breast cancer just by looking at your breasts — any part of them. That’s why regular check-ups are so important. But your nipples can give you a clue something is off. Patt says if you see any thickening, redness, rash, swelling, dimpling, puckering, unusual discharge in your nipples; or if they’ve recently become inverted; or if you feel a palpable mass, then you should call your doctor stat as those can all be signs of breast cancer. Most likely it will be no big deal but it’s better to get it checked out!

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