Lymph nodes are located throughout the entire body. They are a significant component of the immune system and are responsible for assisting the body in recognizing infections and fighting off infections, germs and illness. Lymph nodes typically become enlarged or swollen in the presence of a virus or bacteria; very rarely is lymph node swelling the result of cancer.
A lymph node is a small, round group of cells that is sheltered by connective tissue. It is the job of the lymph nodes to filter out any predatory bacteria from the lymphatic fluid as it courses through the body. When lymph nodes become inflamed due to an infection (commonly bacterial), the condition is called lymphadenitis. Lymph nodes most commonly become swollen due to an infection. Swollen lymph nodes may be felt in areas such as:
- Back of head
- Under jawline
- Behind ears
The lymphatic system runs throughout the body and lymph nodes are situated in several places. The majority of lymph nodes are found in the area of the neck and head. Swollen lymph nodes are usually discovered this region or in the groin or armpits. If any of your lymph nodes are swollen you may have symptoms including:
- Pain in the lymph nodes
- Tenderness to touch in the lymph nodes
- Noticeably large lymph nodes that may be larger than a bean.
You may notice other symptoms in conjunction with swollen lymph nodes, these symptoms are usually due to the underlying cause of infection and include:
- Runny nose
- Swelling in all the nodes of your body
- Swollen arm or leg, due to lymph system blockage
- Sore throat
- Hard, rapidly growing lymph nodes
- Night sweats
Lymph nodes are grouped in clusters; each cluster is responsible for filtering lymphatic fluid for that specific area of the body. The area of swollen lymph nodes could be a clue as to the cause of the swelling. The most common condition associated with the development of swollen lymph nodes is a viral infection. However, lymph nodes may also swell due to bacterial infections and other illnesses including:
- Common Cold
- Ear infection
- Strep throat
- Infected or abscessed tooth
- Skin infections
Less Common Infections
- Parasitic Infections from undercooked meat or contact with cat feces
- Cat Scratch Fever
- Side effects of some medications
Disorders of The Immune System
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- HIV and AIDS
- Lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes
In order to diagnose the cause of your swollen lymph nodes your doctor will likely do a complete medical history, a review of your current symptoms and a physical examination. In addition, your doctor may order tests to help reach a formal diagnosis of the underlying cause. Diagnostic tests may include:
- Blood tests to rule out underlying conditions, evaluate overall health and identify infections
- Chest X-ray or CT scans to identify possible sources of infection or reveal any tumors
- Lymph node biopsy may be necessary if a cause is not found. A sample taken from the lymph node may help diagnose the cause. The biopsy may be done using fine needle aspiration or surgical biopsy to remove the sample.
If your swollen lymph nodes are the result of a viral infection, antibiotics will not be useful, but they are a treatment option if lymph node swelling is the result of a bacterial infection. Swollen lymph nodes due to viral infections will usually resolve themselves over time. If the swollen lymph nodes are the result of any other type of infection or other causes, treatment may include:
Treatment For Infection
- Antibiotics for bacterial infections
- Over the counter pain medication
Treatment For Immune Disorder
- If your lymph nodes are swelling due to an immune disorder your doctor will work to treat the immune disorder, which may relieve your swollen lymph nodes.
Treatment For Cancer
If your swollen lymph nodes are due to cancer, the cancer will need to be treated. Treatment for cancer may include:
- Surgery to remove the cancer
If your swollen lymph nodes are caused by infection and that infection remains untreated, complications may arise. These complications may include:
- The development of an abscess, which may need to be drained and treated with antibiotics. If the abscess implicates any essential organs, severe damage may occur.
- An infection of the bloodstream, which may lead to a condition known as sepsis. Sepsis will need to be treated with a hospital visit and a course of intravenous antibiotics.
If you are experiencing swollen lymph nodes that are painful and sore, you may be able to combat symptoms at home in the following ways:
- Applying a hot compress to the swollen area.
- Using over-the-counter pain medication such as Tylenol or Advil to manage pain.
- Making sure you get enough rest and relaxation so your body can recover adequately.
If you have swollen lymph nodes make an appointment with your doctor to evaluate your symptoms. Generally, lymph nodes that become swollen and painful suddenly are typically the result of some type of infection. Lymph nodes that swell over time and seem painless may be the result of a tumor or certain cancers. Lymph nodes that are hard, red, irregular or tender should be looked at by a doctor right away.
Lymph nodes are located in several parts of the body. The most common site for swollen lymph nodes is the area of the head or neck. Swollen lymph nodes may also be referred to as swollen glands. The most common cause for swollen lymph nodes is some presence of infection in the body. If you have symptoms associated with swollen lymph nodes or think they may be the result of an underlying medical condition contact your health care provider.