Enlarged Cervical Lymph Nodes

Common and Uncommon Causes of Swollen Glands

Lymph node, child

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Cervical lymph nodes are simply lymph nodes located in the neck region. Lymph nodes are small structures located all over the body. They are part of the lymph system and have an important role in the immune system. They occur at somewhat regularly spaced intervals, or chains, in the neck.

People may more readily associate the term cervical to the cervix. Within the context of lymph nodes and musculoskeletal conditions, cervical is used to describe the neck region. The term lymphadenopathy is used to describe swollen lymph nodes. People will commonly refer to the condition as "swollen glands."

Symptoms

Most of the time, people don't notice their lymph nodes because they are too small or deeply situated to be felt. But, on occasion, an infection may cause the formation of swollen bumps beneath the skin of the neck. Those that run along the sides and rear of the neck are the cervical lymph nodes.

Cervical lymphadenopathy may or may not cause pain or tenderness. Oftentimes, it will be felt more than it is seen. Depending on the underlying condition, the lymph nodes may be only slightly enlarged or grow to disfiguring proportions.

Fever and other symptoms of infection may accompany. The swelling will usually resolve once the underlying condition is treated. However, the lymphadenopathy may persist with certain chronic conditions like HIV.

Common Causes

Both bacteria and viruses can cause swollen cervical lymph nodes. When the cause is bacterial, the most likely culprits are either streptococcal or staphylococcal.

In children, viral infections (especially viral upper respiratory tract infections) are common causes. Other viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus. varicella-zoster virus (shingles), and HIV are associated with swollen cervical lymph nodes.

Cervical lymphadenopathy is commonly seen in bronchitis, the common cold, ear infections, scalp infections, strep throat, tonsillitis, or any infection of the ear, nose, or throat.

In addition to the neck, lymph nodes commonly swell in the groin and underarms. When more than one area of lymph nodes is becomes involved, it’s called generalized lymphadenopathy.

Cervical Lymph Nodes and Cancer

Swollen cervical nodes are rarely a sign of cancer. Lymphoma is one such cancer in which the cervical lymph nodes are commonly affected. Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HL) and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) are the two main categories of lymphoma.

Painless swelling of one or more lymph nodes, often the cervical lymph nodes, is a key warning sign for lymphoma. In fact, it may be one of the few outward signs of lymphoma early on.

HL is often characterized by the swelling of cervical lymph nodes and usually follows a predictable procession, moving from one lymph node to the next. While NHL may cause cervical lymphadenopathy, its haphazard development will more likely cause the generalized swelling of lymph nodes.

Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck and metastatic carcinomas are other common malignancies in which cervical lymphadenopathy is common.

Possible Signs of Cancer

  • Lymphadenopathy lasting for more than six weeks
  • Firm, hard, and painless lymph nodes
  • A lymph node larger than 2 centimeters (3/4 inch)
  • Rapidly increasing size
  • Significant and unintentional weight loss
  • Night sweats
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