What Is Lymphadenitis?

Lymphadenitis is an infection of the lymph nodes characterized by painful, swollen glands. Infected lymph nodes are typically a secondary infection caused by a bacteria, virus, or fungus elsewhere in the body. Lymphadenitis can quickly spread to other nodes throughout the body and requires prompt treatment with antibiotics, antivirals, or antifungal medication.

FatCamera / Getty Images

Types of Lymphadenitis

Lymph nodes are kidney-shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system, which is an intricate web of organs, vessels, and glands that run throughout the body.

Around 600 lymph nodes are scattered in clusters throughout the body, including under the arms (axillary), in the groin (inguinal), around the neck and jawline (cervical), and within the chest (mediastinal) and abdominal cavities (mesenteric).

Lymphadenitis is classified based on whether the condition is confined to a part of the body or is systemic (body-wide):

  • Localized lymphadenitis involves one or more lymph nodes near the site of an infection.
  • Generalized lymphadenitis involves two or more regions of the body and is part of a more pervasive, systemic disease.

When diagnosing lymphadenitis, healthcare providers will often describe it by its location, extent, duration, and/or underlying disease. Examples include mediastinal tuberculosis lymphadenitis, HIV-associated persistent generalized lymphadenitis, or acute inguinal lymphadenitis.

Lymphadenitis vs. Lymphadenopathy

The term lymphadenitis is sometimes used interchangeably with lymphadenopathy, although the two conditions are distinct. Lymphadenitis is an infection of lymph nodes indicative of an underlying infection, whereas lymphadenopathy simply describes the abnormal enlargement or consistency of the lymph nodes for any number of reasons.

Lymphadenitis Symptoms

Symptoms of lymphadenitis can vary depending on the underlying cause and nodes involved:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Nodes that are painful and tender to the touch
  • Texture changes, such as hardened nodes or nodes that are soft or matted together
  • Redness or streaking of the skin overlying the affected nodes
  • Fluid drainage onto the skin
  • Fever

If an abscess has formed, the gland may feel rubbery or mushy from the pus.


Lymph nodes are an important part of the immune system, which functions to isolate disease-causing pathogens so that specialized white blood cells (lymphocytes) can destroy them.

Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections trigger an inflammatory response within the lymph node, causing lymphadenopathy. The gland itself can then become infected and spread infection throughout the lymphatic system within a matter of hours.

Streptococcal and staphylococcal bacteria are the most common causes of lymphadenitis, although it can also be caused by viral infections such as from HIV and rare diseases including tuberculosis and cat-scratch fever (bartonella).


Lymphadenitis is diagnosed based on symptoms, a physical examination, and tests. Your healthcare provider will palpate (feel) the glands to determine the location, size, and characteristics of the affected lymph nodes. They will want to know about things like recent travel you may have done, if you've had contact with a cat or other animals, or if you have a break in your skin.

This can suggest the possible root causes of the infection, which may be confirmed with the following tests:

  • Blood tests to check for signs of infection (such as a white blood cell count) or inflammation (such as an ESR and C-reactive protein)
  • Blood cultures to isolate and identify bacterial causes, including staphylococcal and streptococcal strains
  • Lymph node biopsy, in which tissue is removed for evaluation in the lab via fine-needle aspiration, core needle biopsy, or incisional biopsy
  • Lymph fluid testing in a culture to determine what type of bacteria is growing in it


The right course of treatment for lymphadenitis is determined by age, overall health and medical history, degree of infection, and past history of allergic reactions to antibiotics. Prescription medications are used to treat the infection, while symptoms may be managed with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and cold or hot compresses.


The exact course of treatment will depend on the cause of the infection. Prescription medications may be given orally or by injection and include:

Supportive Care

To help relieve symptoms of lymph node inflammation, your healthcare provider may recommend certain home and over-the-counter remedies, such as:


Lymphadenitis is rarely treated with surgery, with the exception of abscess drainage to remove pus from an infected node (done in tandem with antibiotic therapy).

A Word From Verywell

Swollen glands are a common symptom of infection and warrant a call to your healthcare provider. When swollen glands turn painful, hard to the touch, red, or develop an abscess, it is a sign of an infection that may spread quickly without medical intervention. Lympadenitis can often be prevented with basic health hygiene and wound care (cleansing breaks in the skin and applying an antibacterial product).

4 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. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Lymphadenitis.

  2. West H, Jin J. Lymph nodes and lymphadenopathy in cancer. JAMA Oncol. 2016;2(7):971. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.3509

  3. Gaddey HL, Riegel AM. Unexplained lymphadenopathy: Evaluation and differential diagnosis. Am Fam Physician. 94(11):896-903.

  4. Johns Hoppkins Medicine. Lymphadenitis.

By James Myhre & Dennis Sifris, MD
Dennis Sifris, MD, is an HIV specialist and Medical Director of LifeSense Disease Management. James Myhre is an American journalist and HIV educator.