If you’re pretty tuned in to your body, you know right away when something feels off — especially when that something is in your most sensitive parts: your breasts. Hit with an unusual pang or leaking funky discharge, it’s easy to jump to scary conclusions. A Google search can have you convinced in 3.5 seconds that your symptoms merit a truly ominous diagnosis. But in reality, most boob issues are relatively benign, particularly if your risk factors for disease are low. It’s all a matter of determining what’s normal and what’s cause for concern — which can be tough when you don’t have a medical professional at your beck and call.

woman in bra

So that you don’t have to freak yourself out with anxious googling, we chatted with an expert. Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, MD, is a primary care provider with One Medical and regularly sees patients with weird (but common) breast issues. We tracked her down to talk about what these lady-part problems usually mean and when to get them checked out.

1. Sore Breasts: Every woman has experienced pain in her breasts from time to time, whether due to changes in the menstrual cycle or just from wearing an unsupportive sports bra on a long run. Hormonal birth control is also notorious for causing tender breasts. So when your “girls” are feeling painful or sore, it’s important to take stock of what everyday factors might be contributing or if the pain correlated with starting a new medication.

According to Dr. Bhuyan, there’s another potential underlying cause of breast pain you might not suspect: your diet. “A surprising cause of breast pain is caffeine,” she says. “Many of my patients don’t realize this, and when they cut back on their coffee consumption, it resolves their breast tenderness. Smoking and consuming too much saturated fat have also been linked to breast pain.”

When you’re feeling extra tender, try monitoring how long the pain sticks around. Period-related breast soreness will resolve during the course of your cycle, and you’re likely to feel back to normal within a couple of days of that ill-advised trampoline workout in a Wonderbra. Prolonged breast pain, on the other hand, deserves a checkup. “If you don’t have an obvious cause of the sore breasts and cutting out saturated fats, smoking, and caffeine doesn’t improve the soreness in a few days, then it’s good to seek medical attention,” says Dr. Bhuyan.

2. Nipple Discharge: If something leaking out your nips this isn’t a troubling breast symptom, we don’t know what is. Certainly, for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, breast leakage is no big deal. (This is the one time they’re actually supposed to do this.) “Outside of these conditions, nipple discharge can be from lots of diverse (and unexpected) reasons, like an infection or even a tumor in the pituitary gland,” says Bhuyan. Though it’s just as possible that discharge could be due to a totally harmless cause like a new medication or fibrocystic breasts, don’t leave this one up to an internet symptoms quiz. “Any time you have nipple discharge not associated with pregnancy or breastfeeding, you should seek medical attention,” encourages Bhuyan. “The necessity to seek out medical attention definitely increases if the discharge is bloody.” Yep, we’d get on that, stat.

3. One Breast Larger Than the Other: Ever noticed your leftie is bigger than your rightie — and then gotten paranoid about it? As it turns out, having one breast larger than the other is not just completely normal, it’s very common. According to Bhuyan, “Virtually all women have one breast larger than the other. Most of the time, this is nothing to worry about.” Some possible causes include genetics, the effects of weight loss or gain, or just the fact that no one’s body is perfectly symmetrical. Sudden changes are what to watch out for when it comes to size. If one side jumps to a double D while the other remains a C, it’s a good idea to find out why.

4. Ropy or Lumpy Breasts: It’s the textbook sign we’re taught to watch out for, and the way all too many sad stories begin: “I found a lump in my breast.” Many of us think of spotting a strange mass as a one-way ticket to chemotherapy. But believe it or not, most breast lumps have nothing to do with the Big C. Eighty to 85 percent of them end up being benign, especially in women under 40.

If you have fibrocystic — as more than half of women do at some point in their lifetime — density and a feeling of “ropy-ness” within breast tissue can fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle. So when it suddenly seems like your boobs are full of rocks, keep tabs on the time of the month and you may notice a pattern. However, if you find a lump that’s never been there before, or if it’s causing redness or other changes to the skin on your breast, it’s time to see your doctor.

And as for that monthly exam? Bhuyan says it’s actually not the most important way to prevent or detect breast cancer. “Here’s a possibly shocking myth buster: The best thing you can do for your breast health is not actually the self-breast exam,” she says. “These often result in patients finding things that are ultimately harmless.” Instead, she says, see your doctor regularly and focus on healthy lifestyle. “The best ways to promote breast health are limiting alcohol intake, exercising, not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and getting screened for breast cancer at the right time for you, based on your family history or other risk factors.”

How do you decide when it’s time to see your doc for breast problems? Tweet us at @BritandCo.

(Photo via Getty)