Lymphoma Symptoms: What to Look Out For

Lymphoma symptoms include unexplained fever, itchy skin, and a lump

Lymphoma symptoms are common to a group of blood cancers that affect lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Common early symptoms of lymphoma include fever, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss.

These and other symptoms are associated with Hodgkin lymphoma (HL), accounting for about 10% of all lymphoma cases in the United States, or with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in the majority of cases.

This article discusses lymphoma symptoms and how they present with both HL and NHL lymphoma types. It also explains what they feel like in different parts of the body, and when it is important to see a healthcare provider for your symptoms.

warning signs of lymphoma

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Understanding the Lymphatic System

There are key organs that are a part of your lymphatic system. It is composed of:

Frequent Lymphoma Symptoms

Lymphoma symptoms often are non-specific and can be confused with other, less serious diseases. The warning signs of lymphoma are often subtle and it may take months or years before you realize that anything is wrong. Even so, if you think you may have lymphoma or have a family history of the disease, you can watch for symptoms, including:

For unknown reasons, lymphoma can cause lymph node pain immediately after drinking alcohol.

The Most Common Early Symptom of Lymphoma

Of all of the symptoms of lymphoma, lymphadenopathy is the central defining feature. The swollen nodes are usually firm, rubbery, and movable in the surrounding tissues. It is rarely painful, but tender lymph nodes associated with viral infections are often painful.

Progression and Types

The way the disease develops and its location differs between lymphoma subtypes.

  • HL moves in a sequential fashion through the lymphatic system. Lymphadenopathy will almost invariably start in the upper body—typically the neck (cervical lymph nodes), chest (mediastinal lymph nodes), or armpits (axillary lymph nodes)—before progressing to the lower body.
  • With NHL, the disease develops haphazardly and can affect lymph nodes in any part of the body, including the abdomen (peritoneal lymph nodes) and groin (inguinal lymph nodes).

The very fact that you have persistently swollen lymph nodes should prompt you to see a healthcare provider.

The distinction between HL and NHL is made with microscopic examination of biopsied tissue. HL features abnormal cells with two nuclei, called Reed-Sternberg cells, that aren't found in NHL. Despite the cellular differences, HL and NHL have many of the same symptoms, particularly in the early stages of the disease.

Symptoms by Organ

Lymphoma symptoms are defined by the type and subtype of lymphoma involved, as well as its stage, grade (severity), and location in the body. Extranodal lymphoma that occurs outside of the lymph nodes, causes symptoms based on the location.

Two main categories of extranodal lymphoma are:

  • Primary extranodal lymphoma: Originates outside of the lymphatic system. The vast majority of primary extranodal cases occur with NHL; it's uncommon with HL.
  • Secondary extranodal lymphoma: Originates in the lymphatic system and then spreads to other organs. This can occur with both HL and NHL.

The definition of extranodal can differ slightly based on whether HL or NHL is involved. With HL, the spleen, tonsils, and thymus are considered nodal sites. By contrast, these same organs are considered extranodal with NHL.

Gastrointestinal Tract

The stomach and small intestine are the first and second most common sites for extranodal lymphoma.

Symptoms of gastrointestinal (GI) lymphoma may include:

  • Abdominal tenderness, pain, and cramps
  • Indigestion, nausea, and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Malaise (a general feeling of unwellness)
  • Feeling full after a few bites of food
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Black, tarry stools
  • Unintended weight loss

GI Lymphoma Types

Primary NHL is the usual culprit in GI lymphomas, with most stomach lymphomas linked to a type known as mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma. NHL types affecting the small intestine include MALT, mantle cell lymphoma, Burkitt lymphoma, and enteropathy-associated lymphoma.


Cutaneous (skin) lymphoma occurs with both HL and NHL. Around 25% of nodal lymphomas will manifest with skin symptoms, and 65% of all cutaneous NHL cases will be attributed to a subtype known as cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. One of the most common subtypes is mycosis fungoides.

Symptoms of cutaneous lymphoma may include:

  • Round skin patches that may be raised, scaly, or itchy
  • Lightened patches of skin
  • Skin tumors that can spontaneously break open
  • Thickening of the palms or soles
  • An itchy, rash-like redness covering much of the body
  • Alopecia (hair loss)

What Does a Lymphoma Rash Look Like?

A rash produced by lymphoma can have different appearances, and you may have more than one type. It may be itchy and scaly, cover large areas of your body, and the color can range from red to purple. You may have:

  • Papules, which look like small pimples
  • Patches, which are flat
  • Plaques, which are thick and either raised or depressed into your skin

You may also be able to see lumps under the skin caused by nodules or tumors.

Bone and Bone Marrow

The vast majority of bone lymphomas are associated with NHL and are caused by a type known as B-cell lymphoma. HL almost never affects the bone.

The primary involvement of the bone in NHL is classified as Stage 1 lymphoma. Secondary involvement with widespread (disseminated) disease is considered Stage 4.

When lymphoma affects the bone marrow, it can drastically impair the production of red and white blood cells, causing anemia (low red blood cells) and thrombocytopenia (low platelets). It also suppresses leukocytes (white blood cells) produced in the bone marrow, leading to leukopenia.

Symptoms of bone lymphoma include:

  • Bone pain
  • Limb swelling
  • Loss of range of motion in a limb
  • Fatigue
  • Easy bruising and bleeding

If the spine is involved, lymphoma can cause numbness, weakness, and loss of bladder or bowel control.

Central Nervous System

Lymphomas of the central nervous system (CNS) represent between 7% and 15% of all brain cancers. They are usually classified as B-cell lymphoma and occur most commonly in immunocompromised people, such as those with advanced HIV infection.

Symptoms of primary or secondary CNS lymphoma include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness in a specific body part
  • Loss of sensation in a specific body part
  • Problems with balance, memory, cognition, and/or language
  • Changes in vision or partial vision loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures


Pulmonary (lung) lymphoma is a rare disease and it is more common with HL than NHL. Secondary involvement of lung in lymphomas is more common than primary lung lymphoma in both NHL and HL. Mediastinal lymph nodes may be involved in both HL and NHL.

Symptoms of pulmonary lymphoma are often non-specific in the early stages of the disease and may include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Crepitus (audible lung crackles)
  • Hemoptysis (coughing up blood)
  • Unintended weight loss

Advanced pulmonary lymphoma may also include atelectasis (a collapsed lung) or pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs). By this stage of the disease, the lungs are usually not the only organs involved.


Primary liver lymphoma is extremely rare and almost exclusively associated with NHL. Secondary liver involvement affects 15% of people with NHL and 10% of those with HL. In most cases, the malignancy will have spread from the retroperitoneal lymph nodes (behind the abdominal cavity) to the liver.

Symptoms of liver lymphoma are often mild and non-specific and may include:

  • Pain or swelling in the upper right abdomen
  • Extreme fatigue and lethargy
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rarely, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and/or eyes)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dark urine

Kidneys and Adrenal Glands

Primary lymphoma of the kidneys and adrenal glands is rare. Primary or secondary kidney lymphoma often mimics renal cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that starts in the small tubes of the kidney.

Kidney lymphoma causes symptoms such as:

  • Flank pain
  • A lump or swelling in the side or lower back
  • Hematuria (blood in urine)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

Lymphoma of the adrenal glands will typically manifest with adrenal insufficiency, also known as Addison's disease.


Testicular lymphoma accounts for around 5% of all abnormal growth in the testicles. It typically manifests with painless swelling, usually in one testicle only. What makes testicular lymphoma especially concerning is that it tends to involve aggressive B-cell lymphomas that move quickly into the central nervous system.

Females can develop lymphoma in tissues surrounding the genitals, known as the adnexa. Genital involvement in females is rare, although cases involving the cervix and uterus have been reported.

Lymphoma Complications

Lymphoma weakens the immune system and can lead to serious long-term complications.

While modern therapies have afforded near-normal life expectancies in people with lymphoma, ongoing exposure to chemotherapy drugs may trigger the early development of aging-related diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, hormonal disorders, and infertility.


Secondary cancers, including leukemia and solid tumors, are among the leading causes of death in people with lymphoma. Leukemia, a related blood cancer, can develop years and even decades after exposure to alkylating chemotherapy drugs, and between 70% and 80% of all secondary solid tumors occur in people with previous exposure to combined radiation and chemotherapy.

Breast cancer often occurs between 10 and 15 years after chest irradiation, particularly if radiation treatment happened before age 35. Lung cancer rates are higher in people with HL who are smokers and have previously undergone radiation and/or chemotherapy.

Higher doses of radiation are associated with a higher risk of secondary breast or lung cancer, increasing the risk by as much as 900% compared to low-dose chest irradiation.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is believed to be the leading, non-cancer cause of death in people with lymphoma. Among the chief concerns is coronary artery disease (CAD), which occurs up to five times more often than in the general population. Most CAD cases develop between 10 and 25 years after exposure to chest radiation therapy for lymphoma.

Similarly, radiation to the neck is associated with up to a five-fold increase in stroke risk.

Hormonal Disorders and Infertility

As a disease that often affects organs of the endocrine system, lymphoma may cause hormonal imbalances or insufficiencies that can persist for years following successful treatment of the disease.

The most common complication is hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), affecting as many as 60% of people with HL. The risk of hypothyroidism is directly related to the amount of radiation used to treat the disease, particularly in advanced, late-stage lymphoma.

Infertility is a common consequence for people with lymphoma.

  • Testicular lymphoma can impact male fertility.
  • The alkylating chemotherapy drugs used to treat lymphoma are the most common causes of infertility in males and females. People treated with the BEACOPP regimen of chemotherapy drugs (bleomycin, etoposide, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, vincristine, procarbazine, and prednisone) were most severely affected.

As many as 50% of females treated with BEACOPP chemotherapy will experience abnormal menstrual cycles, while 89% of males will develop azoospermia (the absence of motile sperm).

Other chemotherapy regimens (such as AVBD) are less likely to cause infertility. By and large, males and females with chemotherapy-induced infertility will experience restored fertility after the completion of therapy, although some may end up experiencing permanent sterility.

Prognosis With a Lymphoma Diagnosis

The outlook after treatment for lymphoma will depend on the lymphoma type (there are some 70 kinds) and the stage at which it is diagnosed. For people with early-stage (localized) NHL of the common diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), the 5-year survival rate is 74%. For early-stage HL, the 5-year survival rate is 92%.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Lymphoma symptoms aren't always present in early stages, and overt symptoms develop only when the disease is advanced. The most telling clue—persistent lymphadenopathy with no known cause—should warrant prompt medical attention.

However, in cases where the disease is confined to the chest or abdomen, you may have no visible signs of lymphadenopathy at all. Moreover, the so-called "B" symptoms (fever, night sweats, weight loss) are often mistaken for other conditions.

Risk Factors

If you believe you're at risk for lymphoma, it pays to be proactive and get any symptoms checked out early.

Your risk is elevated if:

  • You have a first-degree relative (parent, brother, or sister) with lymphoma, which is known to increase your risk of NHL by 1.7 fold and HL by 3.1 fold.
  • You've had long-term exposure to industrial chemicals.
  • You have a compromised immune system.

Your lymphoma risk also increases with age.

Radiation & Chemotherapy

Previous exposure to radiation and chemotherapy increases your lymphoma risk. Even people with HL who were previously treated with radiation and chemotherapy run an increased risk of developing NHL in later years.

A Word From Verywell

While risk factors can often point you in the direction of lymphoma diagnosis, anyone can get the disease, even without having risk factors. To this end, the most important thing you can do is to never ignore symptoms that persist. Let your healthcare provider know of your concerns.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes lymphoma?

    Researchers haven't uncovered the exact cause(s) of lymphoma, but they believe genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors, and certain infections all play a role. Other factors associated with an increased risk of getting certain types of lymphoma include age, gender, body weight, and geographical location.

  • How is lymphoma diagnosed?

    If your healthcare provider suspects that you might have lymphoma based on your symptoms, history, and a physical exam, they'll likely order certain blood tests and imaging studies to look for signs of cancer. A lymph node biopsy is the gold standard for diagnosis and can confirm whether cancer cells are present.

  • Are lymphoma symptoms in children different?

    Most symptoms of lymphoma are similar in adults and children. They include swollen lymph nodes, night sweats, weight loss, and difficulty breathing. Your child also may have a swollen belly. Burkitt lymphoma commonly affects children. Contact your healthcare provider for a diagnosis of any suspect symptoms.

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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.
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Additional Reading

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.