Swollen lymph nodes, or swollen glands, in the neck may indicate an infection. They can also occur due to a medical condition, such as an immune disorder or, less commonly, cancer. Treatment can depend on the cause.
Lymph nodes are small, round structures that play a vital role in the body’s immune system. Swollen lymph nodes are also known as swollen glands.
This article looks at how to check for swollen lymph nodes, possible causes and treatment options, when to contact a doctor, and more.
The lymph nodes collect and filter fluids, waste materials, and harmful germs. The human body has hundreds of lymph nodes. The main lymph nodes that people may see or feel are found:
- under the chin
- on each side of the neck
- under the armpits
- on either side of the groin
Lymph fluid flows in and out of the lymph nodes throughout the body before finally making its way back to the chest. While doing so, it collects and traps harmful matter, such as bacteria, viruses, and bodily waste products. The lymph nodes filter the fluid and release it back into the bloodstream together with salts and proteins.
Lymph nodes also contain immune cells that help fight infection by attacking the germs that the body’s lymph fluid has collected.
The lymph nodes may swell when a person has an infection. The swelling occurs as a result of immune cell activity in the lymph nodes.
The location of the swelling often relates to the affected area. For example, an ear infection may cause swollen lymph nodes near the ear, while someone with an upper respiratory tract infection may notice swollen lymph nodes in their neck.
People can check whether their lymph nodes are swollen by gently pressing around the area, such as the side of the neck.
Swollen lymph nodes will feel like soft, round bumps, and they may be the size of a pea or a grape. They might be tender to the touch, which indicates inflammation. In some cases, the lymph nodes will also look larger than usual.
Lymph nodes appear in parallel on both sides of the body. People can check the nodes on each side and compare them to see if one is larger than the other, which is likely to indicate swelling.
Many people with swollen glands also experience pain while making sudden or strained movements. Such movements include:
- sharply turning the neck
- bobbing the head
- eating foods that are difficult to chew
Swollen lymph nodes may occur alongside other symptoms. These vary depending on the underlying problem but may include:
- sore throat
- high temperature
Many different conditions cause the lymph nodes to swell, particularly the nodes in the head and neck. These conditions
- autoimmune disorders
- specific types of cancer
- common infections, such as the flu
Certain medications can also cause swelling. It is important to contact a doctor to discuss any possible side effects of medications.
The following sections discuss the possible causes of swollen lymph nodes in more detail.
Examples of infections that can cause swollen lymph nodes can include:
- the common cold
- the flu
- sinus infections
- bacterial pharyngitis
- herpes simplex
- Lyme disease
Cat scratch fever, which is also called cat scratch disease, can cause localized lymph node swelling in the area near the cat scratch.
Immune system conditions
Immune disorders that can cause swollen lymph glands include:
Much less commonly, swollen lymph nodes can also indicate a malignancy, or cancer, including:
Certain risk factors make a person more likely to have a malignant lymph problem, such as lymphoma. These include being aged 40 years or older and being assigned male at birth.
People with a malignant lymph node may notice that the node feels hard or rubbery. It may also feel fixed to the skin. They may also experience systemic symptoms, such as:
- night sweats
- unexplained weight loss
Swelling in the groin lymph nodes
Lower body infections, and injury to the legs can also cause swollen lymph nodes in the groin.
In many cases, swelling reduces and then disappears within 1–2 weeks once the body has successfully fought the infection. If the problem persists for longer than a couple of weeks, it might warrant a visit to the doctor.
It is also best for a person to contact a doctor if swollen lymph nodes:
- feel hard or rubbery to the touch
- do not move freely
- grow in size
- a node that is an inch or more in diameter
- are just above or below the collarbone
- accompany other symptoms, such as:
- night sweats
- abdominal pain
- unexplained weight loss
- high fever
To assist with reaching an accurate diagnosis, they may perform a physical examination with a focus on the affected area. They may also discuss the person’s symptoms and medical history.
However, they may also order medical tests to determine the cause of the swelling. These tests
Imaging tests, such as a CT scan, can help a doctor look closely at the lymph nodes and the surrounding structures of the body.
If the swelling continues for several weeks or a person has other warning signs, a doctor may recommend a lymph node biopsy. During this procedure, the doctor will numb the area, make a cut, and remove a section of lymph node tissue to send to a laboratory for examination under a microscope.
Lymph node swelling will usually disappear once the infection clears. The swelling may also go down when the person takes prescribed medications,
Doctors may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication if a person has tissue swelling.
If an underlying medical condition is responsible for the lymph nodes swelling, treating this condition should reduce the swelling.
Some home remedies to treat the symptoms of swollen lymph nodes include:
- taking over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen
- drinking plenty of fluids, such as water
- resting to help the body recover from the illness
It may also be beneficial to massage lymph nodes to get the swelling to go down. However, a person should not self-massage lymph nodes if they have an infection.
Here are some frequently asked questions about swollen lymph nodes.
When should a person worry about a swollen lymph node?
Swollen lymph nodes typically resolve within 1–2 weeks. It is concerning if they persist beyond this time, feel hard or do not move when pressed, or are accompanied by night sweats and a very high temperature.
In this case, a person should contact a doctor.
Should I worry about painful lymph nodes?
In most cases, swollen lymph nodes resolve on their own. People should contact a doctor if the nodes feel hard, grow in size, or do not move freely.
What do swollen lymph nodes usually mean?
Swollen lymph nodes usually signal an infection or inflammation in the body. However, less commonly, it can point to cancer.
Why would a lymph node in a person’s neck be swollen?
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Are painful lymph nodes cancerous?
Painful lymph nodes do not mean that a person has cancer. Swollen lymph nodes can occur alongside other symptoms like sore throat, cough, and fever.
How serious is a lymph node infection?
Infections are not always serious, and in many cases, the body can fight the infection on its own. Lymph nodes swell when a person has an infection because the lymph fluid traps harmful bacteria, viruses, and waste products. The nodes also contain immune cells.
Swollen lymph nodes are usually a symptom of another condition, such as an infection, and they tend to resolve on their own within several weeks.
It is best to consult a doctor if swollen lymph nodes persist for longer than 2 weeks or if they occur alongside other symptoms, such as high fever, abdominal pain, or night sweats. The cause of the swelling will determine the treatment.