Enlarged Cervical Lymph Nodes

Common and Uncommon Causes of Swollen Glands

Cervical lymph nodes are lymph nodes in the neck. Swollen lymph nodes, described as lymphadenopathy or "swollen glands," may have several possible causes. These illnesses range from simple infections to a spreading cancer.

Lymph nodes are found throughout the body. They are part of the immune system, which works to fight off infection and keep you healthy. You can't usually see the nodes or feel them under your skin. A healthcare provider might gently examine the lymph nodes in your neck to check for swelling or tenderness.

This article looks at the symptoms and causes of swollen lymph nodes in your neck, and what to look for in more serious cases.

Common causes of Swollen Cervical Lymph Nodes

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Symptoms

Your cervical lymph nodes run along the sides and back of your neck. Most of the time, you won't notice them because they are small and found deep under your skin and muscles.

Sometimes, though, an infection may cause swollen bumps to develop at the cervical lymph nodes. There may be a fever and other signs of infection too. The swollen lymph nodes may be tender or painful, or they may not.

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck usually are felt more than they are seen. Depending on the underlying cause, the lymph nodes may be only slightly enlarged or they may grow large enough to be visibly obvious.

It's common for the swelling to stop once the underlying condition is identified and treated. However, some swollen lymph nodes may persist with certain chronic conditions, like HIV.

Common Causes

Bacteria and viruses cause infections that lead to swollen cervical lymph nodes. Staphylococcal infection is a common bacterial cause.

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

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are commonly seen with:

  • Bronchitis
  • The common cold
  • Ear infections
  • Scalp infections
  • Strep throat
  • Tonsillitis
  • Nose, throat, or mouth infections
  • Dental infections

If you have swollen lymph nodes in your neck, you may also have swollen lymph nodes in your groin and underarms. If swelling affects more than one area of lymph nodes, it is usually called "generalized."

Recap

There's a good chance you never notice the lymph nodes in your neck unless they become swollen. When they are, it's usually linked to a bacterial infection or viral illness. The swelling will clear up once any underlying cause is treated, but there are cases when it persists. That may signal a more serious health problem.

Cervical Lymph Nodes and Cancer

Swollen cervical nodes are rarely a sign of cancer. However, painless swelling of one or more lymph nodes, especially the cervical lymph nodes, is a key warning sign of lymphoma, including Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). In fact, swollen cervical nodes can be one of the few outward signs of lymphoma in the early stages.

  • HL is often marked by the swelling of cervical lymph nodes. The swelling usually moves from one lymph node to the next in a predictable pattern of spread.
  • NHL may cause swollen lymph nodes in the neck but with a less defined pattern of spread. It appears as a more generalized swelling of lymph nodes.

Metastatic carcinomas, and squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck, are other malignancies in which swelling of lymph nodes in the neck is common.

Possible Signs of Cancer

Signs may include:

  • Swollen cervical lymph nodes that last more than six weeks
  • Firm, hard, and painless lymph nodes
  • A lymph node larger than 2 centimeters (3/4 inch)
  • Nodes that rapidly increase in size
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats

Summary

Most of the time, swollen lymph nodes in the neck are caused by an infection. The swelling is temporary and clears up when an ear infection, bronchitis or other cause is treated. But when it doesn't go away, or it appears together with more troubling symptoms, it's a good idea to have your healthcare provider find out why.

A Word From Verywell

Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that some other illness or infection is at work, and that's cause for concern in both children and adults. Try not to be overly upset by swollen glands, though, because usually they're linked to common and easily treatable causes.

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Article Sources
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