Enlarged Cervical Lymph Nodes

Possible Causes and Accompanying Symptoms

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Cervical lymph nodes are small structures in the back and sides of the neck. These, like the hundreds of other lymph nodes in your body, are part of your lymphatic system—an element of your immune system that moves white blood cells through the bloodstream to help fight infection.

Usually, you can't see or feel cervical lymph nodes. But they can swell and become noticeable when your body is working to rid itself of something like the common cold or strep throat.

Enlarged cervical lymph nodes—also known as swollen glands or lymphadenopathy—can also be due to other more serious concerns, including shingles, some sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or, more rarely, cancer.

This article looks at the symptoms and causes of swollen cervical lymph nodes. It also discusses what to look for in more serious cases.

Common causes of Swollen Cervical Lymph Nodes

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Symptoms of Swollen Cervical Lymph Nodes

Your cervical lymph nodes are small and found deep under your skin and muscles. Because of this, you typically won't even realize they are there.

Sometimes, though, an illness may cause cervical lymph nodes to swell. If this happens, you may notice:

  • Neck bumps you can feel and maybe even see
  • Other signs of infection, such as fever
  • Tenderness and pain at the site of the cervical lymph node

Depending on the underlying cause, the lymph nodes may be only slightly enlarged or they may grow large enough to be visibly obvious. In some cases, swelling may be the only symptom.

If you have swollen lymph nodes in your neck, you may also have swollen lymph nodes in your groin and underarms. These are the three sites in the body where you have the most lymph nodes.

If swelling affects more than one area of lymph nodes, it is usually called generalized swelling of the lymph nodes.

Can Lymph Nodes in the Neck Stay Enlarged Permanently?

It's common for the swelling to stop once the underlying condition is identified and treated. However, some swollen cervical lymph nodes stay enlarged permanently with certain chronic conditions, like HIV, or after some infections.

Infectious Causes of Enlarged Cervical Lymph Nodes

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 shingles (varicella-zoster) are associated with swollen lymph nodes.

Swollen cervical lymph nodes are commonly seen with:

They can also occur with certain STIs, include chlamydia and syphilis.

In rare cases, abnormally enlarged cervical lymph nodes have been seen in individuals infected with COVID-19.

When Swollen Cervical Lymph Nodes Could Be Cancer

Swollen cervical lymph 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/neck are other cancerous growths in which swelling of the cervical lymph nodes is common.

Possible Signs of Cancer

Signs of cancer can 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
  • A lymph node larger than 2 centimeters (3/4 inch)


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. While you may feel upset or stressed about swollen glands, keep in mind that they are usually linked to common and easily treatable causes.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do cervical lymph nodes stay swollen?

    If you have an infection, swollen cervical lymph nodes should go down within two to three weeks. If the swelling doesn't go down within this period, it's best to reach out to your healthcare provider.

  • How can you self-examine your lymph nodes?

    Regular self-exams can help you find swollen lymph nodes. To examine yourself, use a gentle circular motion with your fingertips to feel around the jaw, ears, neck, and collarbone for anything that feels like a swollen lump beneath the skin.

  • Can stress cause lymph nodes to swell?

    Stress is linked to increased inflammation throughout the body. In some cases, stress can contribute to cervical lymph node swelling.

  • What happens after a cervical lymph node is removed?

    If you have a cervical lymph node(s) removed, a drain may be put in place to keep fluid from collecting under the skin and around the surgical incision(s). You will likely experience some pain or discomfort, which will be managed with pain medication.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Indranil Mallick, MD
 Indranil Mallick, MD, DNB, is a radiation oncologist with a special interest in lymphoma.