An Overview of Swollen Lymph Nodes

Medical consultation Doctor examining the thyroid gland of a patient.
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When people refer to swollen glands, most of the time they are actually referring to swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy). Unlike glands, which secrete saliva, sweat, tears, or milk, lymph nodes release substances that help fight infections, such as those that, for example, cause a strep throat or a tooth abscess. When your lymph nodes are swollen, it most often means they are doing their job.

There are more than 600 lymph nodes in your body. As part of your immune system, they stand ready to trap and kill a circulating virus or bacteria that can (or is) making you sick.

You can find lymph nodes in the following areas of your body:

  • Back of the head (occipital)
  • Front of the ear (preauricular)
  • Behind the ear (postauricular)
  • Under the jaw (submandibular)
  • Under the chin (submental)
  • Cheek area (facial)
  • Front of the neck (anterior cervical)
  • Back of the neck (posterior cervical)
  • Above the collarbone (supraclavicular)
  • Behind the knee (popliteal)
  • In the armpit (axillary)
  • Below the ear (epitrochlear)
  • Groin area (inguinal)

Symptoms

While swollen lymph nodes seem like something that would have obvious signs, there are times when no symptoms will occur (or, at least no symptoms that you can detect). When they are present, those you can expect beyond swelling include:

  • Redness at lymph node site
  • Localized tenderness or pain
  • Warmth at the lymph node site
  • Hard, irregular, or fixed in place lymph nodes

Depending on what's causing the swollen lymph nodes, you may also experience:

  • Persistent or unexplained fever
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Night Sweats

Causes

Most people who seek medical attention because of swollen lymph nodes have a cause that can be easily identified, is benign, and may take care of itself in time.

An infection, especially a viral infection such as a run-of-the-mill cold, is the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes.

Other causes of swollen lymph nodes include:

Less often, a swollen gland can be a sign of an immune disorder (e.g., HIV), and autoimmune disease (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis or lupus), or certain types of cancer (leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma).

Diagnosis

With a brief medical history and physical exam, your doctor will often be able to tell the difference between common lumps and bumps (e.g., sebaceous cysts and lipomas), normal lymph node swelling, or something more concerning.

Your doctor will take note of the size and location of the lymph node, rate of growth, consistency (soft, firm, or rubbery), and whether redness or tenderness is present.

If you have a swollen lymph node and no other symptoms, and if you and your doctor can’t pin down the cause right away, she might suggest taking a watch-and-wait approach to see if your symptoms subside on their own.

If a swollen lymph node continues to grow or does not decrease in size after several weeks or months, specific testing may be needed.

Depending on the suspected diagnosis, this may include blood tests or cultures (to confirm viral or bacterial infections), imaging tests (to rule out leukemia or lymphoma), or a biopsy.

Treatment

As you can guess, treating a swollen lymph node depends on what's causing it to swell in the first place. For example, if it is a bacterial infection, your health care provider may prescribe an antibiotic.

If, however, leukemia or lymphoma is the why behind your swelling, your doctor will need to treat your underlying cancer with approaches ranging from chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery to immunotherapy, complementary therapies, or newer targeted therapies.

Given the range of causes and treatment methods, it is best to seek direction from your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

It is easy to panic when you notice a swollen lymph node, but do your best to stay calm. In most cases, swollen lymph nodes are adaptive responses—that is, your body is doing what it is supposed to be doing to ensure you are feeling your best. If you are concerned, a call to your doctor can never hurt.

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