Cervical lymph nodes are small nodes, sometimes called “glands,” in the neck. Swollen cervical lymph nodes may indicate a nearby infection, such as an ear infection or other health condition.
The lymphatic system is a network of organs and tissues that helps support immunity. The lymph nodes are tiny, kidney-shaped structures that act as filters in this system. They trap and kill viruses, bacteria, and fungi before these pathogens can return to the bloodstream.
Swollen lymph nodes are usually a sign of infection but
Swelling in the cervical lymph nodes may indicate a problem in the head, neck, throat, or lymphatic system.
This article outlines the potential causes of swollen cervical lymph nodes and information on treatment options and when to see a doctor.
Lymph nodes are part of the immune system. They can enlarge when the system is defending the body from a nearby infection.
Cervical lymph nodes are in the front, sides, and back of the neck. They are usually smaller than
- an ear infection
- a dental infection
- a skin infection
- a salivary gland infection
- inflammation due to hair dye use or tight hair braids
- a cold or flu
- glandular fever (mononucleosis or mono)
- some types of cancer
Lymph nodes can also become noticeable under the chin, under the arms, and around the groin, depending on where an infection occurs.
A person may or may not be able to feel if their cervical lymph nodes are swollen. However, a doctor may be able to feel one or more bumps beneath the skin when examining the neck region.
The precise symptoms that may occur with swollen lymph nodes will depend on the cause, but common symptoms of an infection include:
- fever or chills
- a general feeling of being unwell, known as malaise
- body aches
- pain or tenderness around the swollen nodes
Many conditions can cause swollen cervical lymph nodes, each with its own symptoms.
- autoimmune diseases
- inflammatory conditions
- tumors or cancer
- genetic conditions present since birth
- medication use or exposure to toxins
Here we look at some examples.
Infection is a common cause of swollen lymph nodes anywhere in the body.
When an infection occurs somewhere in the body, the lymph nodes in that area fill with white blood cells. The white blood cells then start to destroy the pathogens responsible for the infection.
The accumulation of white blood cells in the lymph nodes causes them to swell.
Some common infections that may lead to swollen cervical lymph nodes include:
- the common cold
- strep throat or tonsillitis
- ear infections
- dental infections
Additional signs of infection depend on the specific illness but may include:
- sore throat
Lymph nodes that swell due to infection may be painful when a person touches them. They usually return to their usual size once the infection clears.
Swollen lymph nodes are common in the early or acute stage of HIV infection. At this stage, the body starts fighting the infection.
Research suggests the virus reaches nearby lymph nodes
They include swelling in the lymph nodes. Swelling can affect any lymph nodes but commonly occurs in the cervical lymph nodes.
A 2016 study investigated lymph node abnormalities in 100 people with HIV and swollen lymph nodes. Of the participants, 60% had swelling in the cervical lymph nodes.
Other symptoms of the early or acute stage of HIV include:
- sore throat
- mouth ulcers
- night sweats
- muscle aches
- fever and chills
- a rash
Swollen cervical lymph nodes can sometimes be a sign of cancer.
Cancers that can cause swelling in the lymph nodes are:
- Hodgkin lymphoma, which
commonly appearsfirst in the neck and usually affects young adults
- chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a type of blood cancer that
may causeswollen lymph nodes in the neck, above the collarbone, and under the arms
- non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which can develop in lymph nodes anywhere in the body and is most common among people aged
- other cancers, especially head and neck cancers, which can spread to the cervical lymph nodes
Other symptoms that may occur with all these conditions include:
- night sweats
- unexplained weight loss
The outlook for most cancers is better if a person seeks early treatment.
Medication side effects
Rarely, swollen lymph nodes can occur as a side effect of a medication. When medication is the cause, swelling may develop in any of the nodes, including the cervical lymph nodes.
Medications and toxins that can cause swollen lymph nodes
- allopurinol (Zyloprim), used for gout
- atenolol (Tenormin), used for blood pressure and heart disease
- captopril (Capoten), an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor used for blood pressure
- carbamazepine (Tegretol), an anti-seizure and epilepsy medication
- cephalosporins, such as cephalexin (Keflex), an antibiotic
- hydralazine (Apresoline), a blood pressure medication
- phenytoin (Dilantin) and primidone (Mysoline), used to manage seizures
- quinidine (Quinidex), used for some irregular heartbeats
- sulfonamides, such as sulfasalazine (Azulfidine), a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) used to treat psoriatic arthritis and other chronic inflammatory conditions
In rare cases, a chemotherapy drug known as granulocyte colony stimulating factor
A doctor can usually detect a swollen cervical lymph node by feeling a person’s neck. They may do additional tests to find out why the swelling has occurred.
A doctor will likely ask about:
- other symptoms
- personal and family medical history
- medications used and possible exposure to toxins
- lifestyle habits
- recent travel
- recent exposure to other people who may have an infectious disease
They may also order the following diagnostic tests to find out the reason for swelling:
If necessary, the doctor may also perform a biopsy of the cervical lymph nodes to check for the presence of cancer cells.
The treatment options for swollen lymph nodes depend on the underlying cause.
A swollen lymph node usually occurs as a result of infection. In such cases, the lymph node should return to its usual size once the infection has cleared.
Swollen lymph nodes typically do not require treatment unless they are painful. However, the following home remedies may help relieve discomfort:
- applying a warm compress several times per day
- taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- getting plenty of rest
A person should see their doctor if symptoms persist or worsen despite home treatment. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics if there are signs of a bacterial infection.
A person with HIV may receive antiretroviral medications to manage the virus. These drugs reduce the amount of the virus in a person’s blood and bodily fluids.
The drugs can reduce the viral load to where it is undetectable. Then, a person will no longer be able to pass on the disease. Many people can now live long and active lives with HIV, if they receive suitable treatment.
What does it mean when HIV is undetectable?
Cancer treatments will depend on several factors, including:
- the type of cancer a person has
- the stage of the cancer
- the person’s overall health
Possible treatment options include:
In most cases, swollen cervical lymph nodes indicate the body is fighting an infection. Infections often go away without treatment, and the node should return to its usual size once the infection clears.
A person should seek medical advice if they experience:
- severe symptoms, such as pain, a high fever, or difficulty breathing
- swelling that lasts longer than 2 weeks
- additional symptoms, such as night sweats and a persistent fever
- swelling with no other symptoms, which may be a sign of cancer or an autoimmune disease
- a hard and painless swelling in the lymph node
- a rapid change in the size of the lymph node
- swelling in more than one area of lymph nodes, such as in the neck and the groin
Swollen cervical lymph nodes are common. In most cases, swelling is a temporary response to an infection, but it can also be a sign of a more severe underlying health condition.
A person should see their doctor if the swelling persists, worsens, or if it is causing concern. A doctor will investigate the cause and recommend a suitable course of treatment.