What It Means When Chest Lymph Nodes Swell

May 7th 2016

Discovering that the lymph nodes in your chest have begun to swell can be alarming, but swollen lymph nodes are not always a sign of serious illness. So many conditions are associated with swollen glands that a doctor must evaluate other symptoms before making a diagnosis. Though some causes of swollen lymph nodes are benign, lymphadenopathy can also be a sign of many types of cancer and must always be evaluated by a professional.

Non-Specific Lymphadenopathy

Lymphadenopathy is a generic term for swollen lymph nodes. Lymph nodes often enlarge as part of the body's normal immune response to infections, as the lymphatic system temporarily steps up its capacity to filter out damaged and infected cells. Lymph nodes in the chest may swell in response to injury, for example, or the underlying cause may be an infection such as a cold or flu.


Sarcoidosis is a relatively benign condition often associated with swollen lymph nodes. The swelling is usually painless and goes unnoticed until a chest X-ray is performed. This condition results from a buildup of inflammatory cells, called granulomas, in the lymph nodes. Symptoms rarely become serious, though some patients experience aching joints, sleeplessness and loss of appetite.


Lymphomas are potentially life-threatening cancers that start in the lymph nodes and spread to the rest of the body through the lymphatic system. Lymphomas are broadly divided into Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's varieties. Hodgkin's lymphoma is treatable with chemotherapy and radiation, and the outlook is very good with treatment. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a miscellaneous category, which makes generalizations difficult. Some non-Hodgkin's lymphomas are relatively easy to treat, while others are aggressive and hard to control. Swollen lymph nodes are a common symptom of all types of lymphomas, and only laboratory test can determine the specific type.

Other Cancer

Sometimes, cancer begins in some part of the body other than the lymphatic system and then migrates into the lymph nodes, causing them to swell. Lung cancer sometimes spreads to the chest lymph nodes in this way. Only an oncologist can determine exactly where the cancer started and what the ideal treatment is. Given the variety of cancer types that can cause swollen lymph nodes in the chest, prognosis varies widely from highly treatable to potentially fatal.


It can be alarming to discover that the lymph nodes in your chest have swollen, and many people's first thought is that something must be desperately wrong. Swollen lymph nodes may be totally asymptomatic, found only during a chest X-ray for an unrelated matter, or they can present as lumps near the neck and armpits. They may be painful or painless. Lymph nodes tend to swell in response to infection as well as a number of other conditions, so swollen glands do not, by themselves, indicate a particular illness. Many common ailments can cause swollen lymph nodes in the chest, and only a doctor is able to make a definitive diagnosis of the underlying cause.

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