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Montgomery glands, sometimes also referred to by their more technical name “areolar glands,” are small glands located on the areola of the female breast that produce an oily secretion designed to keep the nipple moisturized and protected. Lubrication is particularly important during breastfeeding, and as a consequence the glands often work the hardest in lactating women; oily secretions are a normal part of breast health, though, and can be triggered by ordinary stimulation, too. The glands are generally sensitive, and blockages and other problems can lead to serious consequences.
Most women have between five and 20 Montgomery glands on each breast, and they are located just below the surface of the areola. The areola is the circular area of darkened skin surrounding the nipple. The primary reason for the discoloration of this area is that the areola roughly outlines the location of the mammary glands, which is where milk is produced and travels to the nipples through a network of lobules and ducts.
Even though the glands sit right on the surface of the skin they aren’t usually visible under normal conditions. Certain hormonal triggers will cause them to bump up slightly, though. Pregnancy is one example: pregnant women often experience small raised pink or red bumps, often in a ring formation around the nipple, when the glands are stimulated. Arousal and pressure, often from tight-fitting clothes or bras, can also trigger this reaction. These bumps are usually considered very normal, and they usually subside on their own with time.
The glands are named for the Irish obstetrician William Fetherstone Montgomery, who was the first to identify what, exactly, their role was back in the 1800s. He surmised that the oily secretions that happen during stimulation and breastfeeding were coming not from the milk ducts themselves, but rather from a separate glandular area that simply responded to triggers in those regions. Modern breast science has confirmed that he was correct.
Nipples are made of somewhat sensitive tissues that are more prone to environmental dryness and irritation than normal skin. The main job of the glands is to secrete enough natural oils to keep them moisturized and protected against the outside world. In most cases surface oils can also serve to keep foreign objects out by creating something of a surface barrier at the nipple’s tip.
Regular nipple lubrication is important, but it is perhaps most crucial during breastfeeding. Infant suckling and regular milk production can cause the nipples to dry and crack, which can be both painful and potentially harmful to mom and baby alike. When the glands are working properly, they keep the whole areola area balanced and moist.
Some medical experts also think that the oils could help stimulate babies’ appetites, particularly right after birth. Something in the oil’s smell might trigger the region in the newborn brain that controls hunger, they say, though research on this particular aspect is somewhat scant.
The Montgomery glands’ position right on the surface of the breast means that they are sometimes susceptible to infection or irritation. Infection is often related to mastitis, a problem involving the mammary glands as well as surrounding glands and tissue. It is most common in lactating women, and medical treatment is almost always required in order to get rid of the infection and keep it from spreading.
A condition commonly referred to as “jogger's nipple” also involves irritation of these glands. The correct term for this condition is “fissure of the nipple,” and it happens whenever the nipples are subjected to repeated, constant stimulation that overwhelms the glands’ ability to keep up with adequate lubrication levels. The “jogging” name comes because it happens a lot when sports bras or shirts chafe the skin during exercise. Common symptoms include dryness, soreness, or bleeding involving one or both nipples. Some medications can help speed healing, but in most cases time and reduced friction are the only cures.
Certain medical problems can also cause the glands to clog or stop working properly, which can lead to a host of other problems. Dryness and itching are usually near the top of the list, but clogged ducts, swelling, and breast tenderness are also generally included. It’s usually rare for problems to strike the Montgomery glands alone — usually problems happen elsewhere in the areola and mammary glands at the same time — but it is possible. Usually only a medical professional can make the distinction and final determination, though.
One of the best ways for people to avoid problems with these glands is for them to work at keeping their nipples protected. Joggers and runners should find sports bras that fit properly, for instance, and if pressure is still a problem it may make sense to place a bandage over the nipples before beginning an exercise regiment. The bandage will act as an effective barrier between the skin and clothing. Surgical tape often works as well to prevent damage from occurring.
Nursing moms also sometimes look for additional lubrication in the form of lanolin or other natural oils. Applying these to the nipple before and after breastfeeding can help augment the lubrication provided by the glands, though it’s really important in these circumstances that the substances are safe for babies to ingest. Not all lotions and oils that help lubricate the skin are necessarily suitable for breastfeeding.