Unlike the tear glands in the eye or sweat glands in the skin, the lymph nodes do not produce and release chemicals. Instead, the lymph nodes work as a group to carry lymph throughout the body.
Lymph carries white blood cells around the body to fight off germs and other foreign invaders. Lymph nodes filter fluids from the body with this lymph, which helps the body fight off infections and other diseases.
Lymph nodes in the neck may swell if an infection is present.
Though there are hundreds of lymph nodes in a person's body, only a few can be felt. Many people notice that the lymph nodes in their neck or armpits swell when they have an infection, for example, the cold or flu viruses. This is because the lymph nodes are filling with immune cells and waste from the germs.
Other groups of lymph nodes that may be felt when they swell are near the back of the head, belly, or groin. These enlarged nodes may also show additional symptoms, such as:
- tenderness or pain when touched
- redness and warmth on the skin over and around them
- visible lumps under the skin
Swollen lymph nodes may also be felt alongside other symptoms of an infection. Depending on the cause of the infection, these can include:
In most cases, swollen lymph nodes will return to their usual size once the infection has been treated or goes away.
Other symptoms of swollen lymph nodes may be a sign of a more serious issue. These symptoms require a trip to the doctor:
- rapidly growing nodes
- nodes that remain swollen for more than 2 weeks
- unexplained weight loss
- long-lasting fevers or night sweats
- easy bleeding or bruising
- stiff nodes that do not move when pushed
Anyone experiencing problems with swallowing or breathing because of adenopathy should call a doctor immediately.
There is a range of different causes of swollen lymph nodes.
Swollen lymph nodes may be caused by infections such as influenza.
Infections are the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes.
The body responds to these infections quickly, filling the nodes with white blood cells to fight off the infection.
Any number of infectious germs could be behind the swelling, and some are much more common than others.
Infections that can cause adenopathy include:
- the common cold
- influenza (the flu)
- strep throat
- tooth infections
- ear infections
- mononucleosis or mono
- various skin infections, such as cellulitis, shingles, or staphylococcal infections
- sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia or syphilis
- human immunodeficiency virus or HIV
Swollen lymph nodes can also be caused by things other than infections, such as autoimmune diseases or injuries. There are numerous examples, but some possibilities include:
- Medications: Some medications, such as those used to prevent malaria or the anti-seizure medication phenytoin (Dilantin), may cause swollen lymph nodes.
- Injuries: Cuts, bruises, and fractures may inflame the lymph nodes around the injury, as the body works to keep germs at bay and help heal the wound.
- Lupus: This is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation around the body, including in the joints, skin, and lymph nodes.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: This is an autoimmune disease that primarily causes inflammation in the joints, though this inflammation can spread to other areas in some cases.
- IgG4-related disease: This is an inflammatory condition that can cause damage and scarring in one or more systems of the body.
Adenopathy in cancer
Cancers may also spread to the lymph nodes when a tumor metastasizes. This means cancer cells break away from the tumor and spread to other parts of the body via the blood or lymph.
When the cancer cells are carried in the lymph, they can easily become stuck in a lymph node and cause adenopathy. They may possibly create another tumor in the node.
Cancer cells in the lymph may not spread as fast as cancer cells distributed through the bloodstream. If cancer cells get into the lymph, nearby lymph nodes often get affected first, and secondary tumors and adenopathy may follow.
Because of this, doctors will keep close watch over the lymph nodes in the area around the original tumor to look for any signs of the disease spreading.
CT scans may be used to check for other swollen lymph nodes in the body.
Adenopathy itself is not a disease, but a sign of an underlying disease or other condition. Doctors will first identify the location of the swollen lymph nodes.
Adenopathy is classified depending on the location of the swollen lymph nodes.
- Localized adenopathy affects only one area of the body.
- Bilateral adenopathy occurs on both sides of the body.
- Generalized adenopathy occurs in multiple places in the body.
Adenopathy can also be categorized as acute or chronic:
- Acute adenopathy comes on suddenly and goes away quickly.
- Chronic adenopathy persists for a longer period of time.
Superficial lymph nodes found just under the skin can often be checked using a physical examination. Doctors may use imaging tests, such as computed tomography or CT scans, to check for other swollen lymph nodes throughout the body, such as those near the organs.
Doctors may ask numerous questions about the swelling and any additional symptoms the person is experiencing in order to determine the underlying cause.
They may also call for blood tests or other tests to help diagnose the underlying issue. In some cases, doctors may order a biopsy of the lymph node. This is where they take a bit of tissue from the node for examination.
Usually, the lymph nodes will not be treated directly. Instead, the underlying condition causing adenopathy will be treated.
Home treatments, such as warm compresses or ice pads, may help soothe any discomfort in the area.
Over-the-counter pain medications, such ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), can temporarily ease the pain from swelling, and extra rest may support the body's healing process.
If the swollen lymph nodes are due to a bacterial infection, doctors may prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics do not affect viral infections.
Serious conditions such as autoimmune diseases or cancer require special, individualized treatment plans.
Adenopathy can vary from person to person. If adenopathy is caused by a minor infection, it will go away as soon as the infection has cleared up. More serious conditions may require a specialized treatment plan.
Anyone with persistently swollen lymph nodes or nodes that grow over time should see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment.