Causes of Lumps on the Neck

Often the body's normal response to illness, though there are more possibilities

Finding a lump in or on your neck—like anywhere else on your body—may immediately have you wondering if it's a cancerous tumor. While that's one possibility, there are many other causes of neck lumps—some of which are concerning, some of which are not.

Most often, a neck lump is due to a swollen lymph node. These nodes are tiny clusters of cells found in many parts of the body that help your immune system keep you healthy. As your body fights an invader—whether it's a virus that causes the common cold or HIV, or some other intruder—lymph nodes can swell.

This article discusses common causes of a lump in your neck, including reasons for swollen lymph nodes. You will also learn how to tell the difference between swollen lymph nodes and other types of lumps in your neck, such as cysts, goiters, and tumors.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

One of the most common reasons you'd feel a lump in your neck is because you're actually feeling your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are found in the neck, face, armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin.

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

If you have an active infection, the lymph nodes can get bigger as they work to help rid your body of the illness. When you get better, they'll go back to their normal size.

common causes of a swollen lymph node

Verywell / Jessica Olah

A swollen lymph node feels like a small, soft bump under the skin. These nodes can range in size from a pea to a grape, often feel tender to the touch, and can be uncomfortable.

Infection is the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes. Some illnesses that can be to blame include:

Less often, swollen lymph nodes are caused by cancer, especially ​non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancers can also spread to lymph nodes and cause them to get big and hard. The lymph nodes may also not move well (what providers call "fixed" or "non-mobile").

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

Swollen Glands vs. Swollen Lymph Nodes

Swollen lymph nodes are often called swollen glands, even though nodes are not glands. Glands are organs that secrete something, like hormones, saliva, or oil. Lymph nodes are small structures that act as filters.

Checking Lymph Nodes for Swelling

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

  • 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

Only a healthcare provider can determine if your neck lump is a swollen lymph node or something else.

Nodules

A nodule is an abnormal growth of tissue anywhere in the body. Most cases are not cancerous.

For example, nodules that produce a lump in the neck can be due to overuse of the vocal cords (e.g., in singers), the effect of alcohol use on the thyroid gland, and other causes.

You should note, however, that healthcare providers will often call a neck lump a nodule until they know exactly what it is—which means that a nodule, once tested, could end up being cancerous.

Whether a nodule needs to be treated depends on if it's causing symptoms, if or how quickly it is growing, and where it is on the body.

nodule dermatofibroma

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Cysts

Lumps in your neck can also be cysts. Cysts are fluid-filled sacs of tissue. They can form almost anywhere in the body. A cyst is not solid and usually feels soft. Cysts are often benign, but some cancers can be cystic.

Many cysts go away on their own. However, depending on their size and location, they may have to be surgically drained.

epidermoid cyst

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Lipomas

A lipoma is a benign lump filled with fat. If you feel a lump in your neck, it could be a lipoma.

Lipomas are not cancerous. They may 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.

lipoma

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Goiters or Colloid Nodular Goiters

Another common reason for feeling a lump in your neck is that you have a goiter. Nodular goiters are lumps on the thyroid gland. They appear in the front of the neck, often just on one side.

Since your thyroid moves up and down when you swallow, any goiters and lumps on the thyroid will also move.

Goiters often point to a problem with thyroid function, but they can also appear if you have normal thyroid function.

Are Goiters Caused by Iodine Deficiency?

Some goiters are caused by iodine deficiency. This was once common in the United States, but it is far less so now that table salt is fortified with iodine.

Goiters can usually be treated with medication. For example, having too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) can be treated with Synthroid (levothyroxine), and having too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can be treated with radioactive iodine.

In some cases, goiters have to be surgically removed.

Goitre

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Boils

Sometimes, neck lumps are related to infections. Boils are skin infections that can look and feel like lumps. They can form anywhere on the body but tend to be close to the surface of the skin. Boils can be deep, hard, and fairly big. Pus may come out of them.

Boils can be drained by a healthcare provider. Sometimes, antibiotics are also needed—either put on the skin (topical) or taken by mouth as a pill. In severe cases, intravenous (IV) antibiotics might be needed to treat a boil.

Sometimes boils have to be drained by a surgeon (a procedure called incision and drainage).

Boil

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Cancerous Tumors

Cancer cells are mutated cells that grow fast and can be very difficult to stop. There are thousands of ways to classify tumor types.

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.

There are many symptoms of cancer; a visible lump can be one. While it's not likely that the lump is cancer, it can be scary if you notice one. That's why it's important to have your provider take a look.

Cancerous lump

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Should I Be Worried About a Lump on My Neck?

It may be easy to conclude that a neck lump is a swollen lymph node and nothing to worry about—and you may indeed be right. For example, you have a cold, have other related symptoms, frequently experience this when you get sick, and the lump popped up quickly.

Still, the only way to know for sure if your neck lump is worrisome or not is to see a healthcare practitioner.

There are some features of neck lumps that can raise red flags. For example, here's how a cancerous lump differs from a neck lump due to a swollen lymph node:

Swollen Lymph Node Cancerous Neck Lump
About 1/2 inch in diameter Can be 1 or more inches in diameter
Rubbery Hard
Regular shape (like a marble) Irregular shape
Moveable when touched Does not move when touched 
More likely to be painful More likely to cause no pain
Appears suddenly, then improves Gradually grows in size or remains

Any signs of a cancerous lump should prompt a trip to your healthcare provider. You should also get evaluated if your neck lump is persisting, getting larger, or cannot be clearly tied to a recent illness.

Diagnosing a Neck Lump

In some cases, a practitioner can determine if your neck lump is likely a cause for concern based on a physical examination and a review of other symptoms you may be experiencing. For example, if you have mono, you may also have a fever or sore throat.

In others, testing will be needed to finalize the diagnosis.

Testing

If a lump is not obviously due to a swollen lymph node or the practitioner notices features of the lump that are suspicious or undefined, diagnostic imaging tests will likely be done. An ultrasound, X-raycomputed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can help your provider see whether or not the lump is solid or fluid-filled.

Imaging tests can also measure how big the lump is 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 provider might want to perform a biopsy. Sometimes fluid-filled lumps will also be biopsied because they can also be cancerous (for example, if it is cystic thyroid cancer).

For a biopsy, a small amount of tissue is taken from the lump. A tissue sample can usually be taken using a needle, but some have to be taken surgically. Your provider will let you know if and when you need to have a biopsy and the best way to take the tissue.

The sample is then analyzed in a laboratory to see what the lump actually is made of.

Summary

Lumps in your neck are most likely not serious. The most common cause of neck lumps are that your lymph nodes are swollen. This commonly occurs when your body is fighting an infection, such as the flu, mono, or strep throat. As the infection clears up, your swollen lymph nodes should go back to their normal size.

Neck lumps or nodules can also be caused by cysts, boils, lipomas, and goiters. These are not cancerous, but they may need to be surgically drained or removed by a provider.

It's less common, but lumps on the neck can also be a sign of cancer. If the lump is getting bigger or not going away, tell your provider. They can figure out what the lump is and recommend the best way to treat it.

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. Keep in mind that most neck lumps are not cancer.

It's still important to keep an eye on the lump and let your provider know if it's getting bigger or doesn't go away within a week or two.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should I be concerned if I have a lump in the neck that won't go away?

    There are many causes of neck lumps, some of which are not concerning. However, a persistent neck lump can be a sign of cancer. See your healthcare provider for a full evaluation.

  • How can you tell if a neck lump is cancerous?

    You won't know if a lump in your neck is a cancerous tumor unless you see your healthcare provider. A tumor is often hard and does not move when you press on it. Tests can be done to confirm the diagnosis.

  • Can stress cause swollen lymph nodes?

    Anxiety and stress can tax your immune system, but there is no evidence that they directly make your lymph nodes swell.

  • How are swollen glands treated?

    Treatment for swollen lymph nodes (a.k.a. swollen glands) depends on the cause. For example, antibiotics will be prescribed for a bacterial infection. Using a warm compress and a pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) can help with discomfort until you get better.

15 Sources
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.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Swollen lymph nodes.

  2. Mohseni S, Shojaiefard A, Khorgami Z, Alinejad S, Ghorbani A, Ghafouri A. Peripheral lymphadenopathy: Approach and diagnostic tools. Iran J Med Sci. 2014 Mar;39(2):158-170.

  3. American Cancer Society. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Revised August 2018.

  4. Benaglio F, Vitolo B, Scarabelli M, et al. The draining lymph node in rheumatoid arthritis: current concepts and research perspectivesBiomed Res Int. 2015 Feb;2015(1):1-10. doi:10.1155/2015/420251

  5. Sabhalok S, Shetty L, Sarve P, Setiya S, Bharadwaj S. Epidermoid and dermoid cysts of the head and neck region. Plast Aesthet Res. 2016 Nov;3(1):347. doi:10.20517/2347-9264.2016.09

  6. Virk JS, Verkerk M, Patel H, Ghufoor K. Massive lipoma of the posterior neckBMJ Case Rep. 2016 Feb;2016(1):1-2. doi:10.1136/bcr-2016-214502

  7. Führer D, Bockisch A, Schmid KW. Euthyroid goiter with and without nodules. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012;109(29-30):506-15. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2012.0506

  8. Leung AM, Braverman LE, Pearce EN. History of U.S. iodine fortification and supplementation. Nutrients. 2012 Nov;4(11):1740-1746. doi:10.3390/nu4111740

  9. University of Michigan Health. Radioactive iodine for hyperthyroidism. Updated March 2020.

  10. Sukumaran V, Senanayake S. Bacterial skin and soft tissue infections. Aust Prescr. 2016;39(5):159-163. doi:10.18773/austprescr.2016.058

  11. American Cancer Society. Breast cancer signs and symptoms. Updated September 2019.

  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About infectious mononucleosis. Reviewed September 2020.

  13. Zhang J, Li Y, Zhao Y, Qiao J. CT and MRI of superficial solid tumors. Quant Imaging Med Surg. 2018;8(2):232-251. doi:10.21037/qims.2018.03.03

  14. University of Michigan Health. Swollen lymph nodes. Updated September 2020.

  15. University of Maryland Medical System. How Does Stress Affect the Immune System?.

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.