6 boob changes that are harmless — and when to worry

You probably don’t give your breasts much thought every day. But if you notice they look different from a friend’s, you might have questions, including what these "odd" breast things might say about your health. In fact, boob variation is pretty typical from woman to woman. That said, it’s important to know what is and isn’t worth getting checked out. Here’s what falls into the realm of completely normal, plus when you should talk to a doctor.

1. Your boobs are lumpy.
Some women just have lumpy breasts. Therese Bartholomew Bevers, MD, FAAFP, a professor of clinical cancer prevention and medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center and prevention outreach programs at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, likened breasts to a bag of peas. “It feels naturally lumpy, but women should be looking out for change, if there is something different that you never noticed before,” she tells SELF. A concerning lump may also feel different from the other lumps in your breast. “If you were feeling a bag of peas and a rock was in there, that’s a different feeling lump,” Bevers said.

You shouldn't panic and assume it’s cancer if you suddenly feel a new lump: Susan Hoover, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist in the Breast Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, told SELF that some women form breast cysts that are usually benign (meaning noncancerous) that can also make breasts feel lumpy. But it's very important to feel your breasts regularly so you can flag any new changes to your doctor. As Richard Reitherman, MD, PhD, medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, urged, “Examine them frequently so you know all the nuances."

2. You have sore boobs.
Usually this just means you’re about to have your period or are on your period, and it should go away on its own each month, Hoover said. But, she added, breast soreness can be related to caffeine from coffee, sodas, and chocolate, as well as a badly fitted bra. Bevers said breast soreness is “very common,” noting that doctors may not even find the cause of the pain — it can just go away one day. But, if you’re suffering from sore boobs, Hoover recommended using a heating pad on your breasts and making sure your bra fits well. (If you’ve recently gained or lost weight, it might be time for a new size, she said.)

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In rare cases, sore breasts can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer, but Bevers said it’s typically accompanied by other symptoms, like breast swelling and puckered skin that resembles the surface of an orange.

Related: 8 awesome things every woman should know about her boobs

3. You have bumps on your boobs.
“The vast, vast, vast majority of these are totally normal skin issues,” Reitherman told SELF. Bevers agreed. “Very commonly, bumps on the breast are not a breast problem, but more a skin problem, like a sebaceous cyst,” she said. You may also notice bumps around your nipple, which are known as Montgomery’s glands — those are totally normal.

But if you notice scaliness, redness, and itchiness on your nipple or breast, point it out to your doctor — it could be a sign of a rare type of breast cancer known as Paget’s disease.

4. One boob is bigger than the other.
Totally normal, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, told SELF. “It’s quite common for breasts to be slightly different sizes,” she said. “Most people wouldn't notice the difference, but it occurs in more than half of all women.” This typically happens when your breasts are developing, but you can also gain or lose more size in one boob versus the other with weight gain and loss, Bevers said.

But if you find that one breast is suddenly larger than the other and you’re not sure why, flag it for your doctor. Asymmetry can be a sign of breast cancer because a large mass could make one breast look larger than the other, Bevers said. (However, she noted, if this is the case, you normally would be able to feel a lump.)

Related: Why you should touch your boobs more often

5. You have stretch marks on your breasts.
Like stretch marks in other parts of your body, boob stretch marks are just a part of life. These usually happen when your breasts grow during a quick weight gain (like pregnancy) and can even happen when your breasts are developing in puberty, Jaime Lewis, MD, medical director for Breast Surgical Services at UC Health in Cincinnati and assistant professor of surgery at UC College of Medicine, told SELF. You're not the only one with boob stretch marks: Reitherman said they're “very common.”

Related: 9 weird nipple things that are completely normal

6. You have some skin tone variation.
Just like the skin on the rest of your body, it’s pretty normal for the skin on your boobs to vary in color. Lewis said your breast’s skin tone can change due to hormones, sun exposure, and even medication. “The vast majority of skin discolorations are nothing,” Reitherman said. Still, if you have a skin tone variation on your boobs and it doesn’t go away, it's not a bad idea to ask your doctor about it. “It’s probably more likely to be a skin problem than an actual breast problem, but it doesn’t hurt to have it checked out,” Bevers said.

Doctors stress that, when in doubt, you should always have whatever weird breast things you notice checked out. While it could be something, it’s likely nothing. It just doesn’t hurt to ask.