nipple chafe

Image via Unsplash: Matthew LeJune

Free the nipple from chafe: What, why and how to prevent it

Chafing is a common problem that many runners will experience during some stage of their training. How do you prevent and treat it?

nipple chafe

Image via Unsplash: Matthew LeJune

Nipple chafing may be an awkward topic of conversation but we think that given how active most of us are, it may be of benefit and a topic of interest for some of our readers.

Although it is commonly referred to as “runners nipple” chafe is not only a burden to runners and you do not need to be running tens of kilometres to fall victim to this painful and irritating injury. 

Nipple fissures commonly plague bodyboarders, surfers as well as breastfeeding women. In fact, given its other nicknames: surfer’s nipple, red eleven, raver’s nipple, big Q’s, red nipple, stingers, weightlifter’s nipple and gardener’s nipple, you can tell it is a pretty common problem.

It will happen to anyone who is exposed to excessive friction around this area.

What is it?

In scientific terms, chafing is a friction-induced skin injury where the outer layer of skin (epidermis) is rubbed, creating microscopic tears. This exposes the skin layer below (the dermis), which becomes red, raw and irritated.

In layman’s terms, it’s red sore skin that has been irritated by something continuously rubbing against it.

According to Runner’s World, there are 2 different ways that chafing can occur: skin-on-skin rubbing and Fabric-on-skin rubbing

Moisture, such as sweat,   chances of chafing much higher as sweat contains salt. Once the sweat evaporates, leaving behind the salt crystals, friction increases.  

Your skin is very delicate and is essentially being weakened by this constant friction with your shirt or sports bra. The skin around your nipple is even more delicate, making it even more susceptible to chafe.

Chafing varies in severity from minor redness to severe cracks – it all depends on what degree your nipples were exposed to the friction.

Symptoms include:

  • Soreness, tenderness, or redness
  • Slight discomfort or intense pain
  • Ruptured epidermis cracks or open sores
  • Scabbing or an appeared “crustiness”
  • Dry, chapped, chafe texture
  • Skin that is oozing or bleeding

How to prevent nipple chafe?

Wearing dry and well-fitting clothing made from favourable fabrics can reduce the chance of chafe.

Choose clothing that is made with moisture-wicking fabrics. These fabrics draw moisture away from the body and dry very quickly. Ladies,  wear bras composed of semi-synthetic material.

You can also create a barrier between your nipples and your shirt. If you are a runner going for a quick run around the block or just doing a workout, a simple and inexpensive solution is to use plasters or sports tape as a barrier. 

If you are a surfer or bodyboarder, you can wear a rash vest.

Dry skin is also more prone to chafing (seems weird given that moisture is one of the cause) than moisturised skin. So moisturise those nipples.

You should also avoid getting dehydrated. Drink enough water so that your body is easily able to flush the salts from your sweat away from your skin. This reduces the number of salt crystals left between your skin and your clothing. 

Baby powder also works well to absorb the excess moisture from your sweat. 

How to cure nipple chafe

You tried your hardest to prevent it but were unsuccessful and you have bleeding nipples.

First, rinse the area in lukewarm water. Anything hotter and they will probably feel like they are falling off. Gently clean the area using antibacterial soap. 

You should make sure that you get rid of all the bacteria and reduce the risk of potentially developing folliculitis, another common problem for athletes. 

That is a topic for another day.

Pat your skin dry and apply an antibacterial cream. Try and use something that contains zinc oxide. Diaper cream is a great option.

Cover the area with a gauze pad which will protect it but also allow it to breathe. 

Depending on the severity of your chafe you may need to take some time off your regular activity to give it a chance to heal. 

Healing usually takes about a week or so. The scab will form in a day or so and then fall away soon after. 

If there is no improvement and you suspect and see signs it may have gotten infected please go see your doctor. 

Signs of a skin infection include:

  • Redness spreading away from the initial chafing mark
  • Swelling
  • Hot skin
  • Blood or pus exuding from the chafing mark
  • An open wound that hasn’t scabbed over in a couple of days

Keep these preventative strategies in mind should you be susceptible to any chafe. Although we pinpointed and focused on nipples, these tips apply to all commonly affected chafing areas. 

Hopefully, your next run, workout, surf or rave will be done in comfort and won’t result in a rash.