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What is an Areola?

By Katriena Knights
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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When used as an anatomical term, "areola" can refer to any round area, but it is most commonly used to refer to the circular, pigmented area around the human nipple. Though areolas are present in men, women, boys and girls, they are larger and usually darker in color in women. In the female breast, the area marks where the ducts of the mammary glands are located. During lactation, milk is excreted through these ducts. Additional glands in the areola appear as bumps in the skin. These glands, called glands of Montgomery, produce oils to help lubricate the breast during nursing.

The color, shape and size of the areas differs greatly between men and women as well as between individuals. Shape can vary from circular to oval. In men, the areola averages about two inches in diameter. In women, the area can be quite large, up to 4 inches (10.2 cm) or larger in diameter, especially during pregnancy and lactation. Although the areola often becomes larger during pregnancy and nursing, it can at times remain large after lactation has ceased. The pigment also often darkens in color during pregnancy because of hormonal changes. Similar changes in size and color also can occur during puberty but generally are not as extreme.

Some problems and diseases can occur that are specific to the areola and nipple. Among these are jogger's nipple and Paget's disease. Jogger's nipple is an uncomfortable but easily treatable condition that occurs when the nipple and areola are irritated by clothing during activities such as jogging. Many other activities can lead to jogger's nipple, so it also might be referred to as runner's nipple, weightlifter's nipple or even gardener's nipple. It can be prevented by wearing looser clothes or, conversely, by wearing a compression vest while running or jogging to prevent clothes from rubbing against the nipple.

Paget's disease is a much more serious condition. Symptoms include a rash that looks like eczema, with itching and burning and often a fluid discharge from the area. The disease is caused by Paget's cells forming in the nipple. These cells are malignant and usually indicate the presence of breast cancer. Although it can appear to be a minor inconvenience, it should be treated immediately. Paget's disease is itself a form of breast cancer, so surgery as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatments are often necessary. If there is additional underlying breast cancer, this must be dealt with as well through lumpectomy or mastectomy.

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Discussion Comments

By vogueknit17 — On Jul 24, 2011

@Catapult- I have a friend who was considering surgery, but I do not know if she will actually do it.

And the issue with having large areolas is not even just that it can be hard to cover up, but they are also very sensitive areas. People with dry or sensitive skin are really susceptible to things like the "runner's nipple" mentioned here, or other issues.

Even I didn't know, though, that ongoing symptoms of a painful areola could even be signs of cancer.

By Catapult — On Jul 24, 2011

@JaneAir- I never would have imagined a surgery for areola reduction. At the same time, I bet if they were especially large it might even be difficult to cover them fulling with bras or while wearing low-cut tops.

By JaneAir — On Jul 24, 2011

@KaBoom - I didn't know that either, and I think it's definitely good information to have.

I didn't know it until recently, but you can actually get an areola reduction. I know a girl that recently got breast implants and she confided to me that she also got her areolas reduced! Apparently she was insecure about their large size.

I personally don't think the size of ones areolas is something worth getting concerned about. However, my friend does seems a lot happier since her surgery.

By KaBoom — On Jul 23, 2011

I am really glad I read this article. I get eczema a lot, so if I developed if on my nipple I would probably be upset but not too concerned. I had no idea this was a symptom of breast cancer! Now in the future I'll know to watch out for eczema-like symptoms in this area and take it seriously.

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