Enlarged Cervical Lymph Nodes

Common and Uncommon Causes of Swollen Glands

Cervical lymph nodes are the lymph nodes in the neck region. Swollen lymph nodes, described as lymphadenopathy or "swollen glands" can develop due to a variety of conditions, including infections and cancer.

Lymph nodes are part of the immune system, and they are distributed throughout the body. You can't usually see them or feel them under your skin, and your doctor might gently examine the cervical lymph nodes in your neck to check for swelling or tenderness during your physical examination.

Common causes of Swollen Cervical Lymph Nodes
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Symptoms

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

But, on occasion, an infection may cause swollen bumps to develop beneath the skin, at the location of your cervical lymph nodes. Fever and other symptoms of infection may be present as well. Cervical lymphadenopathy may or may not cause pain or tenderness.

Oftentimes, you can feel the swollen nodes when you gently touch your neck. Usually, cervical lymphadenopathy can be felt more than it is seen. Depending on the underlying condition, the lymph nodes may be only slightly enlarged, or they may grow large enough to be visibly disfiguring.

The swelling will usually resolve once the underlying condition is treated. However, lymphadenopathy may persist with certain chronic conditions, like HIV.

Common Causes

Infections caused by pathogens like bacteria and viruses can cause swollen cervical lymph nodes to develop. Staphylococcal infection is a common bacterial culprit.

In children, viral infections (especially viral upper respiratory tract infections) are common causes of cervical lymphadenopathy. 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
  • Infections of the nose, throat, or mouth
  • Dental infections

When you have swollen lymph nodes in your neck, you might also have swollen lymph nodes in your groin and underarms. If swelling affects more than one area of lymph nodes, the condition is usually described as generalized lymphadenopathy.

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, cervical lymphadenopathy can be one of the few outward signs of lymphoma in the early stages.

  • 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.
  • NHL may cause cervical lymphadenopathy with a haphazard development that will more likely cause generalized lymph node swelling.

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

Possible Signs of Cancer

Signs may include:

  • 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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Article Sources
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  1. Ramadas AA, Jose R, Varma B, Chandy ML. Cervical lymphadenopathy: Unwinding the hidden truth. Dent Res J (Isfahan). 2017;14(1):73-78.

  2. Swollen Lymph Nodes (Lymphadenopathy). Cleveland Clinic. Published October 23, 2019.

  3. Shanbhag S, Ambinder RF. Hodgkin lymphoma: A review and update on recent progress. CA Cancer J Clin. 2018;68(2):116-132. doi:10.3322/caac.21438

Additional Reading
  • Louissaint A, Jr., Ferry JA, Soupir CP, Hasserjian RP, Harris NL, Zukerberg LR. Infectious mononucleosis mimicking lymphoma: distinguishing morphological and immunophenotypic features. Modern pathology. 2012;25(8):1149-1159.
  • Meier JD, Grimmer JF. Evaluation and management of neck masses in children. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(5):353-8.
  • Mohseni S, Shojaiefard A, Khorgami Z, Alinejad S, Ghorbani A, Ghafouri A. Peripheral Lymphadenopathy: Approach and Diagnostic Tools. Iran J Med Sci. 2014;39(2 Suppl):158-170.