How to Tell a Lump From a Lymph Node

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Lymph nodes are tiny clusters of cells found in many parts of the body. They are part of the lymphatic system, which helps your immune system defend your body against infections.

When you are sick with an infection, your lymph nodes can sometimes become swollen due to the infection-fighting process. Enlarged lymph nodes are usually a sign of infection, but many types of illnesses can cause them to swell, ranging from the common cold to cancer.

This article discusses common causes of swollen lymph nodes. It also looks at the difference between swollen lymph nodes and other types of lumps that can appear on the neck, such as cysts, goiters, and tumors.

common causes of a swollen lymph node

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Identifying Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes are found in the neck, face, armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin.

A fluid called lymph flows through the lymphatic system. Lymph contains lymphocytes (white blood cells) that fight infection, and it also carries bacteria, viruses, and other germs away from your tissues. Lymph is then filtered through your lymph nodes.

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 swollen lymph nodes. They can also be caused by cancer, especially ​non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancers can also spread to lymph nodes and cause them to become enlarged, hard, and sometimes fixed or non-mobile.

Enlarged lymph nodes can also be caused by immune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

You might have heard swollen lymph nodes referred to as swollen glands. This can be confusing because a true gland is an organ that secretes something—hormones, saliva, oil, etc.—and they are not the same as lymph nodes.

How to Check 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. Doctors can sometimes tell them apart by their hardness, texture, shape, and whether they move when touched or seem fixed in place.

The vast majority of lumps are benign (noncancerous), but sometimes they can be malignant (cancerous).

Nodules

A nodule is a broad term that refers to all kinds of lumps, both cancerous and not. Usually, healthcare providers will refer to a lump as a nodule until they know exactly what the lump is.

Nodules can form on any part of the body including the thyroid and vocal cords. 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 and usually feel soft. 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. Some cancers can be cystic.

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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 they have to be surgically removed depending on their size and location. People who have had one lipoma or a family history of lipomas are more likely to get them again.

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lipoma

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Goiters or Colloid Nodular Goiters

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

Goiters often point to a problem with thyroid function, but they can occur with normal thyroid function as well. Some goiters are caused by iodine deficiency. This was once common in the United States but it is far less common now that table salt is iodine fortified.

Goiters may be treated with medication. For example, hypothyroidism (thyroid hormone deficiency) can be treated with Synthroid (levothyroxine) and hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) can be treated with radioactive iodine. 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. Sometimes boils can be deep and/or a fairly large hard lump. They can occur at any place on the body.

Boils are treated with drainage. Occasionally, antibiotics are also needed—either topical (applied to the skin) or taken by mouth in pill form. In extreme cases, intravenous (IV) antibiotics may be given.

Sometimes boils have to be drained by a surgeon. This is known as an I&D (incision and drainage).

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Boil

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Recap

Abnormal lumps on the neck are sometimes benign, like a cyst, lipoma, goiter, or boil. Your healthcare provider may refer to the lump as a nodule until they know exactly what it is. If it's a cyst, it may go away on its own. Some lumps, such as boils and lipomas, may need to be drained or removed by a surgeon.

Malignant Tumors

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 fast and can be very difficult to stop. There are thousands of ways to classify tumor types.

There are many symptoms of cancer, and a visible lump can be one of the symptoms.

Despite the overwhelming odds that a lump will be noncancerous, it can be scary to notice any lump on your body. If you notice a lump, it's important to have your doctor take a look.

Cancerous 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

Diagnosis

If your lymph nodes are swollen because of an infection, you may have other symptoms of infection. For example, if they are swollen due to mono, you may also have a fever or sore throat.

If the infection is bacterial, such as strep throat, you will need antibiotics. If the infection is viral, such as the flu, it will take time for your immune system to fight the infection and for the lymph nodes to decrease in size.

For other lumps, diagnostic tests may have to be done. An ultrasound, X-ray, CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be useful in visualizing whether or not the lump is solid or fluid-filled. It can also measure the lump's size and sometimes show whether the lump is affecting other organs and tissues nearby.

If the lump is not caused by infection or filled with fluid, your doctor may perform a biopsy. Sometimes fluid-filled lumps will be biopsied because they can also be cancerous (for example a cystic thyroid cancer). A biopsy involves taking a small amount of tissue from the lump and having it analyzed in a laboratory. This will reveal exactly what the lump is.

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

Recap

Although it's rare, an abnormal lump on your neck can sometimes be a cancerous tumor or a lymph node that is swollen due to cancer. Your doctor will consider all your symptoms when making a diagnosis. If the lump isn't caused by infection, they may do other tests to make a diagnosis, such as an MRI or biopsy.

Summary

Lymph nodes commonly swell when your body is fighting an infection, such as the flu, mono, or strep throat. As the infection clears up, swollen lymph nodes should return to normal.

Swollen lymph nodes on the neck can sometimes be confused for other lumps and nodules, including cysts, boils, lipomas, and goiters. These aren't cancerous, but they may need to be surgically drained or removed by a doctor.

Because lumps on the neck can also be a sign of cancer, it's important to examine the shape, size, and feel of any new lumps on your body and inform your doctor if the lump gets bigger or doesn't change within a week.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • 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 swollen when you have an infection, and they 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?

    The term swollen gland often refers to a swollen lymph node. 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. Swollen glands range in size from a pea to a grape. They often feel tender to the touch and can be uncomfortable.

  • How are swollen glands treated?

    Treatment depends on what is causing them to swell. If it's a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. To ease the discomfort of swollen glands, try using a warm compress and an over-the-counter pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen).

  • What is the difference between a cyst and a swollen gland?

    Cysts and swollen glands feel similar—they are both soft and moveable lumps under the skin. However, cysts can be anywhere on the body, while 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. Glands swell suddenly when there is an infection then shrink to normal within a few days.

A Word From Verywell

Finding a lump anywhere on your body can be alarming, especially when it seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Try not to panic, and keep in mind that the vast majority of lumps are benign, including those that appear on the neck. With that said, it's still important to monitor the lump over the coming days and give your doctor a call if it gets bigger or doesn't go away within a week or two.

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