Swollen Lymph Nodes in the Neck (Cervical Lymphadenopathy)

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are common among children and adults. Usually, infections like cold or flu are the culprit. But sometimes, serious conditions can cause such swelling in your neck (and often in other areas). If you notice lumps in your neck, call a healthcare provider. They’ll identify the cause and tell you if you need treatment.

Overview

What are swollen lymph nodes in the neck?

Swollen lymph nodes in your neck are lumps you notice when touching different areas of your neck. The lumps may feel tender or sore when you press on them.

Your lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped organs that filter a type of fluid in your body called lymph. Specifically, these tiny but mighty organs get rid of anything that would harm your body if it stuck around for too long. For example, they clear out damaged cells and germs. Meanwhile, they allow the good components of lymph (like nutrients) to stay and continue circulating through your lymphatic system.

You have hundreds of lymph nodes throughout your body. When nodes become larger than normal, you have what healthcare providers call lymphadenopathy or adenopathy (or, simply, swollen lymph nodes).

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck can affect children and adults of all ages. The swelling is usually temporary and harmless. It signals that your body is fighting a minor infection, like a cold or strep throat. But sometimes, swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of a more serious condition like cancer.

It’s important to know that some lumps in the neck aren’t of lymphatic origin. There are many other possible causes of lumps in your neck, including:

You should consult a healthcare provider if you notice lumps in your neck so they can identify the cause.

What is cervical lymphadenopathy?

It’s the medical name for swollen lymph nodes in your neck. The word “cervical” refers to your neck.

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Possible Causes

What are the most common causes of cervical lymphadenopathy?

Most often, swollen lymph nodes in your neck are a sign of an upper respiratory infection (like a common cold) or an infection in nearby tissues. Viral infections are the most common cause of cervical lymphadenopathy in children. These issues are usually temporary and/or treatable.

However, there are many other possible causes, and some are more serious. The causes fall into several general categories, described further below:

Depending on the cause, you may notice swollen lymph nodes in other areas of your body besides your neck (like your armpits or groin).

Infections

A wide range of bacterial, viral and other types of infections can cause swollen lymph nodes in your neck. Some are more serious than others. Examples include:

Cancers

Cancer can cause swollen lymph nodes in more than one area of your body (generalized lymphadenopathy). Your neck might be one of these areas.

It’s important to keep in mind that less serious conditions, like strep throat or chickenpox, can also cause swollen lymph nodes in multiple areas. That’s why it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider if you or your child has swollen lymph nodes so they can investigate further.

Examples of cancers that can cause cervical lymphadenopathy include:

Autoimmune diseases

When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system mistakes your body’s healthy cells for invaders. As a result, lots of white blood cells spring into action to attack and destroy the perceived threat. These cells can build up in your lymph nodes and cause swelling.

Examples of autoimmune diseases that can cause swollen lymph nodes in your neck (and often other areas, too) include:

Other conditions

Other medical conditions that can cause swollen lymph nodes in your neck include:

Reactions to medications

Some medications can cause swollen lymph nodes. Examples include:

Care and Treatment

How are swollen lymph nodes in the neck treated?

Healthcare providers decide the best treatment for you based on what’s causing your swollen lymph nodes. For example, you might need antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection like strep throat. For viral infections, you might just need plenty of rest and fluids.

For more serious conditions like cancer, your provider will talk to you about your treatment options and what you can expect going forward.

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Can cervical lymphadenopathy be prevented?

You can’t always prevent swollen lymph nodes. They often happen unexpectedly, like when you’re sick with a viral or bacterial infection. Other times, they happen due to an illness that affects your whole body.

You can prevent many of the contagious infections that cause swollen lymph nodes by:

  • Washing your hands at appropriate times, including after touching commonly shared objects or caring for someone who’s sick.
  • Disinfecting surfaces like countertops and doorknobs in your home and workplace.
  • Boosting your immune system by eating nutritious foods and getting enough sleep.
  • Getting the vaccines your healthcare provider recommends (like the flu shot).

When to Call the Doctor

When should swollen lymph nodes in the neck be treated by a healthcare provider?

If you notice unusual lumps in your neck or elsewhere in your body, you should call a healthcare provider. Tell them what you’re feeling and if you have any other symptoms. Your provider will tell you if you should come in for a physical exam.

During an exam, a provider will feel the lumps in your neck. They’ll also check other areas of your body for swollen lymph nodes and other signs of illness or infection. Be prepared to share your medical history (any past or current diagnoses), as well as your family history (diagnoses among your biological parents or siblings).

If your provider suspects you might have a more serious condition, they may order some tests, including:

Your provider will explain each test you need, and why. If tests reveal an unexpected diagnosis, take the time to learn more about the condition and what it means for you. Remember, your provider is there to listen to your concerns, answer your questions and refer you to specialists as needed.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

It’s common to worry when you notice something feels different in your body, especially when you know it can be a sign of a serious condition. Fortunately, swollen lymph nodes in your neck usually aren’t a cause for concern. These lumps are often just a temporary sign that your body is working hard to get rid of an infection.

Still, it’s a good idea to call a healthcare provider when you notice swollen lymph nodes in your neck or anywhere else in your body. They’ll talk to you about your symptoms and may ask you to come in for an exam. Learning the cause isn’t serious can give you peace of mind. Or, learning you have a more serious condition can allow you to begin treatment as soon as possible. With many conditions, the sooner you get a diagnosis and start treatment, the better your chances of a good outcome.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/13/2023.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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