The term areola (or aréole) comes from Latin, meaning “small open space.” An areola is a small circular area on the body with a different histology from the surrounding tissue. The term is most often used to refer to the pigmented area on the human breast around the nipple (areola mammae), but can also refer to other parts. In anatomy, an areola is a small circular area on any surface including the scalp around hair follicles, the base of fingers and toes, the annular zone surrounding the iris and pupil, and the central mound of flesh on the palm of the hand or sole of the foot.
In the pregnancy and the birthing world, areola, the pigmented area around the nipple serves several important functions during pregnancy and childbirth. It provides a visual cue and a chemical signal for the baby to latch onto during breastfeeding, and it helps to protect the breast from chafing and infection. The areola also helps to regulate the temperature of the breast, keeping it warm enough for milk production but not so hot that it would be uncomfortable for the baby.
The average diameter of an areola is 4 cm, but size varies widely from one woman to another. During pregnancy, the areola darkens in color and becomes larger as the breasts prepare for lactation. This change is due to an increase in melanin production and an expansion of the ductal network in the breast. The increased blood flow to the area also contributes to its darker appearance. The areola may also become bumpy during pregnancy, as Montgomery’s tubercles (small bumps filled with sebaceous glands) enlarge. These bumps are thought to help guide the baby to the nipple during breastfeeding.
After childbirth, the areola typically shrinks back to its pre-pregnancy size and color. However, some women may notice that their areolas remain larger or darker than before. This is usually nothing to worry about.
Some women have large areolas, while others have very small ones. There is no right or wrong size – it’s simply a matter of personal preference.
Complications Related to an Areola
Some women develop complications with their areolas during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Here are some common problems:
- Inverted nipples: This condition occurs when the nipples retract inward instead of pointing outward. It’s relatively common, affecting up to 10% of women. Inverted nipples can make it challenging to breastfeed.
- Long nipples: This condition make it hard for the baby to take the breast far enough to effectively breastfeed.
- Areola eczema: This is a form of eczema that affects the areolas and can cause itching, redness, and flaking skin. Areola eczema is more common in pregnant and breastfeeding women.
This image shows how often the term ‘Areola’ is used in relation to other, similar birth terms:
Here are some terms closely associated with areolas:
Nipple: The protruding part of the breast that contains the opening of the milk ducts.
Breastfeeding: The process of feeding a baby human milk from the mother’s breasts.
Lactation: The production of human milk by the mammary glands.
Mammary glands: The organs in the female body that produce milk for nursing infants.
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