Lymph nodes are
small glands that filter lymph, the clear fluid that circulates through the
lymphatic system. They become swollen in response to infection and tumors.
circulates through the lymphatic system, which is made of channels throughout
your body that are similar to blood vessels. The lymph nodes are glands that
store white blood cells. White blood cells are responsible for killing invading
The lymph nodes act
like a military checkpoint. When bacteria, viruses, and abnormal or diseased
cells pass through the lymph channels, they are stopped at the node.
When faced with
infection or illness, the lymph nodes accumulate debris, such as bacteria and
dead or diseased cells.
Lymph nodes are
located throughout the body. They can be found underneath the skin in many
- in the armpits
- under the jaw
- either side of the neck
- either side of the groin
- above the collarbone
Lymph nodes swell from an infection in the area
where they are located. For example, the lymph nodes in the neck can become
swollen in response to an upper respiratory infection, like the common cold.
What Causes the
Lymph Nodes to Swell?
Lymph nodes become swollen in response to illness,
infection, or stress. Swollen lymph nodes are one sign that your lymphatic
system is working to rid your body of the responsible agents.
Swollen lymph glands in the head and neck are
normally caused by illnesses such as:
- ear infection
- the cold or flu
- sinus infection
- HIV infection
- infected tooth
- mononucleosis (mono)
- skin infection
- strep throat
More serious conditions, such as immune system
disorders or cancers, can cause the lymph nodes throughout the body to swell.
Immune system disorders that cause the lymph nodes to swell include lupus and
Any cancers that spread in the body can cause the
lymph nodes to swell. When cancer from one area spreads to the lymph nodes, the
survival rate decreases. Lymphoma, which is a cancer of the lymphatic system,
also causes the lymph nodes to swell.
Some medications and allergic reactions to
medications can cause the lymph nodes to swell. Anti-seizure and antimalarial
drugs can also cause lymph nodes to swell.
Sexually transmitted infections, such as syphilis
or gonorrhea, can cause the lymph nodes in the groin area to swell.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
A swollen lymph node can be as small as the size of
a pea and as large as the size of a cherry.
Swollen lymph nodes can be painful to the touch, or
they can hurt when you make certain movements.
Swollen lymph nodes under the jaw or on either side
of the neck may hurt when you turn your head in a certain way or when you’re
chewing food. They can often be felt simply by running your hand over your neck
just below your jawline. They may be tender.
Swollen lymph nodes in the groin may cause pain
when walking or bending.
Other symptoms that may be present along with
swollen lymph nodes are:
- runny nose
If you experience any of these symptoms, or if you
have painful swollen lymph nodes and no other symptoms, consult your doctor.
Lymph nodes that are swollen but not tender can be signs of a serious problem,
such as cancer.
In some cases, the swollen lymph node will get
smaller as other symptoms go away. If a lymph node is swollen and painful or if
the swelling lasts more than a few days, see your doctor.
If you’ve recently become ill or had an injury,
make sure to let your doctor know. This information is vital in helping your
doctor determine the cause of your symptoms.
Your doctor will also ask you about your medical
history. Since certain diseases or medications can cause swollen lymph nodes, giving
your medical history helps your doctor find a diagnosis.
After you discuss the symptoms with your doctor, they
will perform a physical examination. This consists of checking the size of your
lymph nodes and feeling them to see if they’re tender.
After the physical examination, a blood test may be
administered to check for certain diseases or hormonal disorders.
If necessary, the doctor may order an imaging test
to further evaluate the lymph node or other areas of your body that may have
caused the lymph node to swell. Common imaging tests used to check lymph nodes
include CT scans, MRIs, X-rays, and ultrasound.
In certain cases, further testing is needed. The
doctor may order a lymph node biopsy. This is a minimally-invasive test, which
consists of using thin, needle-like tools to remove a sample of cells from the
lymph node. The cells are then sent to a laboratory where they are tested for
major diseases, such as cancer.
If necessary, the doctor may remove the entire
Swollen Lymph Nodes Treated?
Swollen lymph node glands may become smaller on
their own without any treatment. In some cases, the doctor may wish to monitor
them without treatment.
In the case of infections, you may be prescribed
antibiotics or antiviral medications to eliminate the condition causing the
swollen lymph nodes. Your doctor might also give you medications such as
aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil) to combat pain and inflammation.
Swollen lymph nodes caused by cancer may not shrink
back to normal size until the cancer is treated. Cancer treatment may involve
removing the tumor or any affected lymph nodes. It may also involve chemotherapy
to shrink the tumor.
Your doctor will discuss which treatment option is
best for you.