Swollen lymph nodes are your body’s natural reaction to illness or infection. These small lumps are soft, tender and often painful. The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes is an upper respiratory infection, but they can have many causes. If they’re enlarged with no obvious cause, see your healthcare provider to rule out something more serious.
When you’re not feeling so great, like when 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. Those bumps on your neck are swollen lymph nodes. The medical terms for swollen lymph nodes are adenopathy or lymphadenopathy.
Lymphadenopathy is common and 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. Swollen lymph nodes mean your body’s 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. Lymph fluid is a clear or slightly yellowish fluid made up of white blood cells, proteins and fats.
When you think of swollen glands, you may be thinking of swollen lymph nodes on one or both sides of your neck. But you can develop painful swollen lymph nodes in your armpits too. The medical terms for swollen lymph nodes in your armpits are axillary adenopathy or axillary lymphadenopathy. You may be able to move them slightly with your fingers. You may have swollen lymph nodes under your jaw and in your groin too.
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 varies by person) in your:
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Lymphadenopathy is actually a symptom that could mean you have an illness or infection. Your healthcare provider may examine your swollen lymph nodes to determine what’s causing the swelling. They’ll evaluate your swollen lymph nodes for:
The most common cause of lymph node swelling in your neck is an upper respiratory infection. These infections can take 10 to 14 days to resolve completely. As soon as you start feeling better, the swelling should go down as well. But it may take a few weeks longer to go away completely.
Other bacteria and viruses that may cause your swollen lymph nodes 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 if you have strep throat, you may develop swollen lymph nodes in your neck.
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, your healthcare provider might recommend medicine to help clear it up.
Generalized swollen lymph nodes mean you have them in two or more areas of your body. This usually points to a more serious systemic (meaning it’s all over your body) disease. These are wide-ranging and may include:
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.
If you’re feeling sore and tender, you can treat swollen lymph nodes in your armpits and other areas naturally. You can try using a warm compress (like a microwavable rice sock or similar heating pad). Over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) and acetaminophen (Tylenol®) may help too. These treatments won’t shrink your lymph nodes. But they’ll help ease your pain temporarily until your body fights off the infection or illness successfully.
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 the following:
Most swollen lymph nodes aren’t a cause for concern and will go away as your infection clears up. Healthcare providers usually only worry about swollen lymph nodes when they enlarge for no apparent reason. If you have a large, swollen area but you’re not feeling sick and you didn’t recently have a cold, flu or other infection, see your healthcare provider. You’ll need further tests, like blood work, imaging scans or a biopsy.
In rare situations, swollen lymph nodes can 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.
See your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms that may indicate that something more serious is going on:
Yes. Studies have shown that swollen lymph nodes in your armpits can be a side effect of certain COVID-19 vaccines. Swollen lymph nodes most commonly develop after receiving a two-dose mRNA vaccine. Scientists believe this may be because the vaccine evokes a strong immune response from your body. The side effect is temporary and shouldn’t cause any concern. If the swelling in your armpits persists, see your healthcare provider.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Swollen lymph nodes can be a literal pain in the neck. But more often than not, minor infection or illness is the cause. They should go away as soon as your condition clears up. If you have swollen lymph nodes that don’t go away or seem to grow over time, see your healthcare provider. You may have a more serious condition that needs proper diagnosis and treatment.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/17/2022.
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