Have you ever looked at your nipples and wondered if they’re normal? It turns out, they come in all different shapes and sizes. What’s more, they can bring you incredible pleasure, help feed a baby, and even tip you off to some potentially serious health problems. Seriously, they’re amazing. After reading this, we promise you’ll have newfound respect for this body part. Here, everything you need to know about your nipples.
The size of a woman’s nipples and areolas can be as wide as a half-dollar or smaller than a dime, and either way is totally normal, says Alyssa Dweck, M.D., ob-gyn in Westchester, New York and coauthor of V Is for Vagina. Gain weight or get pregnant, and they can balloon even bigger, she says.
Pale pink, brick red, dark brown: Nipple pigment has to do with a woman’s ethnic background and the hue of the rest of her skin. Just as nipple size changes when you have a baby, so does nipple color, and that shift in shade is often permanent. “It’s the result of hormone surges during pregnancy,” says Dweck.
Nipples are an erogenous zone for many women, and a 2011 study from the Journal of Sexual Medicine backs this up. Researchers using MRI imaging found that when nipples are stimulated, a pleasure center inside the brain lights up the same way it lights up after stimulation of the clitoris and vagina.
The same 2011 study that showed a link between nipple stimulation and the pleasure center of the brain also raised the possibility that nipple stimulation alone could result in orgasm, something sex researchers previously estimated that only a “small number” of women could experience.
It’s not uncommon for a man or a woman to be born with three nipples (or four, or five, or seven, as one 2012 study details). These extra nipples, known as “supernumerary nipples,” resemble a mole or mark. They never develop into actual breasts, and they can show up anywhere on the body, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Look closely at your nipples and the surrounding areolas; they kind of resemble the bumpy, crater-filled surface of the moon. “Those bumps on the areola can be hair follicles, ducts, or oil glands that produce lubricating fluid,” says Dweck. “It’s totally normal to have them.”
A rare form of breast cancer called Paget’s disease can present itself as a red bump or rash on the nipple or areola, says Dweck. “It’ll look like an angry skin change that doesn’t go away,” she says. If you spot this and it persists for a few weeks, have your doctor take a look.
Working out is super-healthy for your body as a whole, but it can be rough on your nipples, which often get dry, chafed, and even bloody as they rub back and forth against your sports bra, says Dweck. Dabbing on some petroleum jelly before a treadmill session will soothe irritated skin.
Soreness, pain, cracking, bleeding—these are just some of the consequences of having a hungry newborn attached to your nipples several times a day, says Dweck. These symptoms tend to disappear as a new mom gets the hang of it, but if your nipples continue to suffer, get an assist from your pediatrician or a lactation consultant.
Nursing moms, you might want to keep an extra blouse in your purse or glove compartment. It’s a totally freaky phenomenon, but many breastfeeding women have found themselves suddenly leaking milk as soon as they hear the cry of a random infant or baby nearby, says Dweck.
A little discharge that comes out after you’ve squeezed your nipple is probably no big deal. “But a white, creamy discharge that’s released on its own could be a sign of a non-cancerous growth in the brain,” says Dweck. Green or black discharge can tip you off to a benign duct problem. And bloody discharge might mean breast cancer. If you experience the latter, bring it to your doctor’s attention.