What You Should Know About Lymphadenitis

Inflammation of the Lymph Nodes

In This Article

The lymphatic system is comprised of a network of lymph nodes, lymph ducts, lymph vessels and organs that move fluid (called lymph fluid) from the body’s tissues into the bloodstream. Lymphadenitis is the medical term for a condition involving enlargement of the lymph nodes, caused by an infection of one or more lymph node.

What Are Lymph Nodes?

The lymph nodes are bean-shaped bumps located throughout the body that act as filters to remove harmful bacteria and other germs. In fact, there are nearly 600 lymph nodes in the body, but most cannot be felt.

Note, lymph nodes are often called lymph glands, but this is an inaccurate description of the structure. Lymph nodes are not glands because they don’t secrete any substances, they simply act as filters.

Only the lymph nodes located under the armpits (axillary), below the jaw, and in the groin can be palpated (felt upon examination). But, there are lymph nodes that are located in many other areas of the body. The lymph nodes contain white blood cells (lymphocytes) that enable the body to kill germs and fight infection.

Types of Lymphadenitis

Lymphadenitis commonly occurs when another infection is present in the body, causing the lymph nodes to become swollen and infected. There are two types of lymphadenitis, including:

  1. Localized lymphadenitis involves one or several lymph nodes that are near the area where the infection first began. This is the most common type of lymphadenitis. An example of localized lymphadenitis is when tonsillitis causes lymph nodes in the neck area to become enlarged.
  2. Generalized lymphadenitis involves two (or more) areas of the body that with lymph node enlargement/infection. Generalized lymphadenitis may be caused by a systemic (involving the entire body) infection in the bloodstream or a different type of widespread infection.

Symptoms

The primary symptom of lymphadenitis is a lymph node measuring one-half inch in width (which is considered enlarged).

Note, some medical sources disagree on what size constitutes a diagnosis of enlarged lymph nodes. The size that is considered pathogenic (originating from disease) differs depending on where in the body the enlarged lymph node is located. For example, lymph nodes that are located near the elbow (epitrochlear nodes) larger than 0.5 centimeter (0.19 inch) are considered enlarged and may be symptoms of lymphadenitis.

According to MedlinePlus, the swollen lymph nodes involved in lymphadenitis are “usually found near the site of an infection, tumor, or inflammation.” Note, these symptoms describe local lymphadenitis, and not generalized lymphadenitis, because in generalized lymphadenitis the infection site is not located near the enlarged lymph nodes.

Symptoms of localized or generalized lymphadenitis include nodes that:

  • Are increased in size (normal lymph nodes are smaller than one-half inch) 
  • Are painful when touched
  • Are swollen, tender or hard
  • Are rubbery when palpated (felt), which may indicate a pus pocket has formed
  • Are filled with pus or fluid drainage
  • Are reddened

Note, symptoms of lymphadenitis depend on its underlying cause as well as on the area of the body (where the enlarged lymph nodes are located). 

Fever and chills may be symptoms of generalized lymphadenitis. 

Causes

The underlying cause of lymphadenitis is usually infection by a virus, bacteria, or a fungus. An infection that causes generalized lymphadenitis commonly occurs in an alternate location (other than the area that the lymph nodes are found to be enlarged).

Common causes of lymphadenitis include:

  • A localized infection, tumor, or inflammation
  • A skin infection
  • A bacterial infection (such as Streptococcus or Staphylococcus)
  • Generalized lymphadenitis may be caused by a systemic viral infection.

Rare Causes of Lymphadenitis

Rarely, lymph nodes can become enlarged due to cancer. Common types of cancer that cause lymphadenitis are cancerous tumors and blood cancer (such as leukemia or lymphoma). Note, risk factors for a malignant (cancer) cause of lymphadenitis include age (over 40 years old) sex (males have a higher risk), race (Caucasians are at higher risk), supraclavicular location (found just above the collarbone in the hollow area of the neck) of the enlarged lymph nodes, and symptoms such as fever, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss.

Other rare causes of lymphadenitis include;

  • Bartonella (cat scratch disease)
  • Tuberculosis

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of lymphadenitis involves a thorough history and physical exam. During the diagnostic assessment, performed by the health care provider, it’s important to report symptoms such as recent infections, fever, as well as circumstances like recent travel, skin infections, or a recent incident involving contact with cats or other animals.

The health care provider will take all of these factors into account along with the results of a physical exam. The physical exam will include palpation (feeling) the lymph nodes to look for any visible signs of infection or injury near the enlarged lymph nodes.

Diagnostic tests that may be performed include:

  • Blood tests to check for signs of infection such as an elevated white blood cell count)
  • A lymph node biopsy and culture involving removal of lymph node tissue to examine tissue for signs of infection or disease, such as cancer
  • Imaging tests such as X-rays or computed tomography (CT) scans to check for tumors

Treatment

The exact type of treatment ordered by the healthcare provider depends on several factors, including:

  • Age
  • Overall health condition
  • Medical history
  • Cause of the lymphadenitis
  • Severity of the lymphadenitis
  • The patient’s preferences
  • Other factors (such as allergies, medical history and more)

Common Treatment Modalities

Common treatment of lymphadenitis may include:

  • Antibiotics (prescribed by the health care provider) to treat symptoms caused by bacterial infections
  • Pain medication
  • Anti-inflammatory medication (such as ibuprofen [Motrin] or other types of anti-inflammatory medications)
  • Surgery (to drain the excess fluid or pus), this may involve a simple outpatient procedure, using a local anesthetic to numb the area before making a small incision to allow the excess fluid to be drained.
  • Cancer treatment when lymphadenitis is caused by a cancerous tumor (this may include radiation or chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is treatment using drugs such as cytotoxic medications that kill cancer cells.

Every person diagnosed with lymphadenitis will not necessarily need treatment. People with healthy immune systems may be able to recover without medical intervention (particularly when the primary infection that caused the lymph nodes to swell has been treated or has subsided on its own).

Home Treatment

Some health care providers may suggest home treatment to alleviate symptoms of lymphadenitis. These include, but are not limited to;

  • Over-the-counter pain medications
  • Over-the-counter medication to lower inflammation (such as ibuprofen)
  • Cold compresses (to reduce swelling)
  • Elevation of the affected area (to reduce swelling)

Study

A 2010 study involving 38 children, discovered that a simple procedure, called needle aspiration, was a safe and effective alternative to open surgical drainage in children with cervical (neck) lymphadenitis with a need for surgical drainage. 

Needle aspiration is the process of obtaining excess fluid by applying suction through a fine needle attached to a syringe.

Only minor complications resulted from using needle aspiration, “One complication originated from necrotic [dead] tissue; the other involved formation of a small scar in two patients, which resolved spontaneously. There were no major complications,” wrote the study authors.

General Tips for Those Who Have Lymphadenitis

  • Take medications exactly as prescribed
  • Keep follow up appointments
  • Follow the health care provider’s discharge instructions (such as using cool compresses and elevating the involved body part to reduce inflammation)
  • If symptoms are not relieved with treatment (or if they go away, and then come back again) be sure to notify the health care provider right away.

Prognosis

When prompt treatment is administered (such as antibiotic treatment) a full recovery can usually be expected. But the swelling caused by lyphadenitis may not completely go away for weeks, or in some instances even months.

Complications

When lymphadenitis is left untreated, serious complications may occur. These include:

  • Cellulitis (inflammation of the innermost layer of the skin)
  • Abscess formation
  • Fistulas (when lymphadenitis is caused by tuberculosis)
  • Sepsis (an emergency condition involving infection in the bloodstream)

A Word from Verywell

Overall good hygiene practices can keep the chance of infection from spreading from small scratches, wounds, or breaks in the skin, which may result in lymphadenitis. Be sure to wash thoroughly with soap and water and apply an antiseptic agent whenever the skin is broken. 

The best way to prevent complications from lymphadenitis is to consult with the health care provider, any time you notice tenderness or swelling that feels like small bumps just under the skin. Prompt intervention to treat any generalized infections is an important measure for lowering the risk of getting lymphadenitis.

When an infection spreads to the lymph nodes, it can easily go on to invade additional lymph nodes, as well as other parts of the body. Therefore, it’s vital to consult with a health care provider right away when symptoms of lymphadenitis occur. In fact, some sources recommend calling the health care provider, or seeking out emergency medical care when symptoms of lymphadenitis are first noticed.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lymphadenitis. Updated 2020.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Swollen lymph nodes. Updated October 23, 2019.

  3. MedlinePlus. Lymphadenitis. Updated December 2, 2019.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Lymph nodes-swollen. Updated 2020.

  5. Gaddey HL, Riegel AM. Unexplained lymphadenopathy: Evaluation and differential diagnosis. Am Fam Physician. 2016 Dec 1;94(11):896-903.

  6. Baek MY, Park KH, We JH, Park SE. Needle aspiration as therapeutic management for suppurative cervical lymphadenitis in children. Korean J Pediatr. 2010;53(8):801-4. doi:10.3345/kjp.2010.53.8.801