What are swollen lymph nodes?
When you’re not feeling so great, like you’re coming down with something, you may notice some swelling on the sides of your neck. Those lumps probably feel soft and tender to the touch — and may even hurt a little.
Swollen lymph nodes (or what doctors call lymphadenopathy) are common and are actually a good thing. The swelling in these pea- or bean-sized lymph nodes are one of your body’s natural reactions to illness or infection. That tells doctors that your body’s healthy and robust immune system is working to clear away infection and/or invading viruses or bacteria.
Many people call them swollen glands ― even though they’re really not glands, but part of your lymphatic system. One of your body’s lesser known systems, it’s in charge of balancing your fluid levels.
Your swollen glands act like filters that help your body get rid of germs, cells or other foreign matter that passes through your lymph fluid (a clear or slightly yellowish fluid made up of white blood cells, proteins and fats).
And when you think of swollen glands, you most likely think of swelling in your neck. But the lymph nodes in your groin, under your chin and your armpits can swell too. You can even move them slightly with your fingers.
You also have lymph nodes throughout your body that you can’t feel. There’s a network of about 600 of them (the exact count actually varies by person) in your:
Symptoms and Causes
What causes swollen lymph nodes?
The most common cause of lymph node swelling in your neck is an upper respiratory infection, which can take 10 to 14 days to resolve completely. As soon as you start feeling better, the swelling should go down as well, though it may take a few weeks longer to go away completely.
Other bacteria and viruses that may cause your lymph nodes to become swollen include:
Your lymph nodes get larger when more blood cells come to fight off an invading infection. They all essentially pile in, causing pressure and swelling.
Often, the lymph nodes that swell will be close to the infection’s site. (That means a person with strep throat might develop swollen lymph nodes in their neck.)
Diagnosis and Tests
How are swollen lymph nodes diagnosed?
Swollen lymph nodes aren’t a disease, they’re a symptom. Usually, diagnosing them means pinpointing what’s causing the swelling.
Besides a regular physical exam and medical history, your doctor will evaluate your swollen lymph nodes for:
- Pain or tenderness when touched.
- Consistency (hard or rubbery).
- Matting (whether they feel joined or move together).
- Location (specific diseases can be tied to where the swollen lymph nodes are in your body).
Your doctor will make sure your swollen lymph nodes aren’t caused by any of your medications. Some drugs, like the anti-seizure medication phenytoin (Dilantin®) can cause swollen lymph nodes.
Doctors only worry about swollen lymph nodes when they enlarge for no apparent reason. So if you have a large, swollen area but you’re not feeling sick and you didn’t recently have a cold, flu, upper respiratory infection or skin infection, you’ll need further tests, like blood work, imaging scans or a biopsy.
In rare situations, swollen lymph nodes can even point to cancer ― specifically, lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system). Other less common causes of swollen lymph nodes include injury, AIDS and cancer that’s spread from the lymph nodes to another part of your body.
Management and Treatment
How are swollen lymph nodes treated?
If swollen lymph nodes are only found in one area of your body it’s called localized swollen lymph nodes. And most of the time, you have a virus ― so there’s no treatment truly needed and it will just run its course. The nodes will gradually shrink back to their normal size.
For some infections (like pink eye or tinea), your doctor may prescribe an antiviral or antibiotic to clear it up.
When swollen lymph nodes are found in two or more areas (generalized swollen lymph nodes), it usually points to a more serious systemic (meaning it’s all over your body) disease. These are wide-ranging and include:
- Autoimmune diseases (like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis).
- Sexually transmitted infections (like HIV or syphilis).
- Bacterial infections (like Lyme disease or typhoid fever).
- Viral infections (like measles or Epstein-Barr).
- Cancers (like lymphoma or leukemia).
These conditions will require more aggressive treatments over a longer period of time. Your swollen lymph nodes may not return to their normal size until after your treatment has ended.
How to ease pain from swollen lymph nodes
You may feel a bit sore and tender. Try using a warm compress (like a microwavable rice sock or similar heating pad) and over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) and acetaminophen (Tylenol®). These treatments won’t shrink the nodes, but they’ll help ease your pain temporarily until your body fights off the infection or illness successfully.
Are swollen lymph nodes contagious?
No, swollen lymph nodes themselves aren’t contagious. You can’t just catch them. But if they were caused by a contagious virus (like cold and flu), you can spread those to your family and others around you.
Can you prevent swollen lymph nodes?
You wouldn’t want to prevent swollen lymph nodes. They’re a sign that your body is fighting an infection or illness. If you hate the discomfort of having swollen lymph nodes, your best bet is to take extra steps to keep from catching common viruses through:
- Proper handwashing.
- Avoiding touching your eyes and nose.
- Staying away from those who are sick.
- Disinfecting surfaces in your home or workspace.
- Getting enough sleep, eating healthy and exercising.
Outlook / Prognosis
When should I worry about swollen lymph nodes?
Most swollen lymph nodes aren’t a cause for concern and will go away as your infection clears up.
See your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms that might indicate that something more serious is going on:
- Lymph nodes that are 1+ inch in diameter.
- Nodes that are very painful, hard, fixed to the skin or growing rapidly.
- Nodes that are draining pus or other substances.
- Symptoms like weight loss, night sweats, long-lasting fever, fatigue, difficulty breathing.
- Swollen nodes close to your collarbone or lower part of your neck (this often points to cancer).
- Red or inflamed skin over your swollen lymph nodes.
Are swollen lymph nodes ever fatal?
No, swollen lymph nodes aren’t fatal. Alone, they’re simply a sign that your immune system is fighting an infection or illness. However, in rare cases, swollen lymph nodes can point to serious conditions, such as cancer of the lymphatic system (lymphoma), which could potentially be fatal.
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