How to Tell a Lump From a Lymph Node

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Lymph nodes are tiny organs that appear throughout the body and function as part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is an extension of the immune system. Lymph nodes filter a fluid called lymph, trapping bacteria and other harmful substances. Because of their function, they often become swollen during an infection.

common causes of a swollen lymph node
Illustration by Jessica Olah, Verywell

Identifying Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes are found in the neck, armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin. Medical professionals know where these nodes are located, which helps a lot when it comes to diagnosing lumps. Swollen lymph nodes are often accompanied by other symptoms of infection.

When you have enlarged lymph nodes, people, or even healthcare providers, might refer to them as swollen glands. This can be confusing because a true gland is an organ that secretes something—hormones, saliva, oil, etc.

If you have an active infection, you might be able to feel lumps in your neck, especially under the jaw and chin—these are lymph nodes. They should return to their normal size when the infection clears up.

Some of the more common illnesses that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:

Infection is by far the most common cause of enlarged lymph nodes. However, enlarged lymph nodes can also be caused by cancer, especially Hodgkin's disease and ​non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Enlarged lymph nodes can also be caused by immune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

How to Examine Your Lymph Nodes

If your lymph nodes are swollen, you can often feel them by pressing lightly and circling your three middle fingers:

  • Behind the ears and under the jawline
  • On both sides of the back of your neck
  • From the middle of your armpit to the side of your breast
  • Along the crease where the thigh meets the pelvis
lymph nodes

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Identifying Lumps and Tumors

Abnormal lumps and tumors are often mistaken for lymph nodes due to their location. They can often be differentiated by the hardness, texture, regularity, and whether they are free-floating or attached to other tissues. While most will be benign (noncancerous), some may be malignant (cancerous).

Nodules

A nodule is actually a generic term. It can refer to all kinds of lumps both cancerous and not. Usually, physicians will refer to a lump as a nodule until they can discover exactly what the lump is. Cysts can sometimes be called nodules.

Nodules can form on any part of the body including the thyroid and vocal cords. A nodule can be a solid lump of noncancerous tissue. Whether a nodule should be treated depends on whether or not it is causing symptoms, if or how quickly it is growing, and where it is on the body.

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nodule dermatofibroma

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Cysts

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs of tissue that appear as lumps. They are not solid. Cysts can occur in almost every area of the body. Depending on their size and location they may have to be surgically drained. Many cysts go away on their own.

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epidermoid cyst

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Lipomas

A lipoma is a benign lump filled with fat. They are not cancerous but sometimes have to be surgically removed depending on their size and location. People who have had one lipoma or a family history of lipomas have a tendency to get them again.

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lipoma

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Goiters or Colloid Nodular Goiters

Goiters are lumps on the thyroid gland. They appear in the front of the neck but can be deviated to one side. Because your thyroid moves up and down when you swallow, goiters and lumps on the thyroid will do this also.

Goiters often indicate abnormal thyroid function but can occur with normal thyroid function as well. Some goiters are caused by iodine deficiency. This was once common in the United States but the prevalence has decreased dramatically since table salt has become iodine fortified.

Goiters may be treated with medication, such as Synthroid (levothyroxine) if they are caused by thyroid hormone deficiency, or by radioactive iodine if they are related to too much thyroid hormone. In some cases, they may have to be surgically removed.

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Goitre

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Boils

Boils are skin infections that can appear as lumps. Most of the time they are close to the surface of the skin and pus may come out of them. However, this is not always the case. Boils can be deep and appear or be palpated as a fairly large hard lump. They can occur at any place on the body.

Boils are treated with drainage. Occasionally, antibiotics are also necessary—either topical or taken by mouth in pill form, or in extreme cases intravenously. Sometimes they may have to be drained by a surgeon, known as an I&D (incision and drainage).

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Boil

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Malignant Tumors

Malignant or cancerous lumps are called tumors. While some sources say that the definition of a tumor is an abnormal growth of any tissue, the term is not usually used to define a benign growth. Cancer cells are mutated cells that grow and enlarge at an abnormal rate and can be very difficult to stop. There are thousands of ways to classify tumor types.

While there are many symptoms of cancer, a visible lump is often the first thing a patient will notice and seek treatment for. This is why, despite the overwhelming odds that a lump will be noncancerous, it is so terrifying to notice any lump on your body and why it is so important to monitor the lump and get medical treatment.

Cancers with palpable lumps are most commonly found in the breast, testicle, or lymph nodes. According to the American Cancer Society, lumps that are fluid-filled and easily rolled in the fingers are less likely to be cancerous than those that are hard, irregular, rooted, and painless.

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Cancerous lump

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Diagnostic Tools

In the case of swollen glands, your healthcare provider will often notice other signs of an infection. If the infection is bacterial, such as strep throat, you will need antibiotics. If the infection is viral, such as in mono, it will take time for your immune system to fight the infection and the glands to decrease in size.

For other lumps, several tests may have to be done. An ultrasound, X-ray, CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be useful in telling whether or not the lump is solid or fluid-filled. It can also measure the lumps and sometimes tell how the lump is affecting surrounding structures in the body.

However, ultimately a biopsy will be needed (if the lump is not caused by infection or filled with fluid). A biopsy involves taking a small amount of tissue from the lump and having it analyzed in a laboratory. This will determine exactly what the lump is.

Sometimes the tissue can be retrieved using a needle. Other times the sample will have to be taken surgically. Your healthcare provider will determine if and when you need to have a biopsy and the best way to retrieve the tissue.

Frequently Asked Question

What do swollen lymph nodes mean?

Lymph nodes filter a fluid known as lymph that runs through the body’s lymphatic system. The lymph nodes can become enlarged or swollen when you have an infection and are sometimes referred to as swollen glands. 

What causes swollen lymph nodes? 

Enlarged lymph nodes are caused by infection or illness. Swollen glands commonly occur with the common cold, flu, mononucleosis, strep throat, or dental infections. More serious illnesses that can cause lymph nodes to swell include HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain types of cancer.

What do swollen glands feel like? 

A swollen lymph node feels like a small, soft bump under the skin in the groin, armpit, neck, under the jaw and chin, behind the ears, or on the back of the head. Enlarged lymph nodes range in size from a pea to a grape. Swollen glands often feel tender to the touch and can be uncomfortable.

How are swollen glands treated?

Swollen lymph nodes are a symptom of another illness and not an illness on their own, so the treatment will depend on the cause of the enlarged lymph nodes. If due to a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection. To ease the discomfort of swollen glands, try using a warm compress and over-the-counter pain reliever such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen).

What is the difference between a cyst and swollen gland? 

Cysts and swollen glands feel similar—they are both soft lumps under the skin. One main difference is the location. Swollen glands only occur where there are lymph nodes: groin, armpit, neck, under the jaw and chin, behind the ears, or on the back of the head. Swollen glands also appear alongside an infection, occur rapidly, then go away in a few days. Cysts can be found in any tissue of the body, but commonly occur under the skin. They are soft, fluid-filled, and moveable. 

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