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Swollen lymph nodes

Show Alternative Names
Swollen glands
Glands - swollen
Lymph nodes - swollen
Lymphadenopathy

Lymph nodes are present throughout your body. They are an important part of your immune system. Lymph nodes help your body recognize and fight germs, infections, and other foreign substances.

The term "swollen glands" refers to enlargement of one or more lymph nodes. The medical name for swollen lymph nodes is lymphadenopathy.

In a child, a node is considered enlarged if it is more than 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) wide.

Considerations

Video Transcript

Lymph nodes - Animation

The lymphatic system is a complex network of thin vessels, valves, ducts, nodes, and organs. It helps to protect and maintain the fluid environment of the body by producing, filtering, and conveying lymph and by producing various blood cells. Lymph nodes play an important part in the body's defense against infection. The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes is infection, which might occur even if the infection is trivial or not. Afferent lymph vessels bring unfiltered fluids into the lymph node to be filtered while efferent vessels carry clean fluids away from the lymph node and to the cardiovascular system where it helps form the plasma in the blood. Overall, lymph nodes work like a biological filtering system. When the body is invaded by foreign organisms, the painful swelling sometimes felt in the neck, armpits, groin, or tonsils comes from the microorganisms being trapped inside collections of lymph cells or nodes. Eventually, these organisms are destroyed and eliminated by cells that line the walls of the lymph nodes and the swelling and pain subside.

Common areas where the lymph nodes can be felt (with the fingers) include:

  • Groin
  • Armpit
  • Neck (there is a chain of lymph nodes on either side of the front of the neck, both sides of the neck, and down each side of the back of the neck)
  • Under the jaw and chin
  • Behind the ears
  • On the back of the head

Causes

Infections are the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes. Infections that can cause them include:

Immune or autoimmune disorders that can cause swollen lymph nodes are:

Cancers that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:

Many other cancers may also cause this problem.

Certain medicines can cause swollen lymph nodes, including:

Which lymph nodes are swollen depends on the cause and the body parts involved. Swollen lymph nodes that appear suddenly and are painful are usually due to injury or infection. Slow, painless swelling may be due to cancer or a tumor.

Home Care

Painful lymph nodes are generally a sign that your body is fighting an infection. The soreness usually goes away in a couple of days without treatment. The lymph node may not return to its normal size for several weeks.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Contact your health care provider if:

  • Your lymph nodes do not get smaller after several weeks or they continue to get larger.
  • They are red and tender.
  • They feel hard, irregular, or fixed in place.
  • You have fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss.
  • Any node in a child is larger than 1 centimeter (a little less than half inch) in diameter.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your provider will perform a physical examination and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Examples of questions that may be asked include:

  • When the swelling began
  • If the swelling came on suddenly
  • Whether any nodes are painful when pressed

The following tests may be done:

Treatment depends on the cause of the swollen nodes.

Text only

Review Date: 1/29/2022

Reviewed By

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

References

Tower RL, Camitta BM. Lymphadenopathy. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 517.

Winter JN. Approach to the patient with lymphadenopathy and splenomegaly. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 159.

Disclaimer

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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Lymph nodes play an important part in the body's defense against infection. Swelling might occur even if the infection is trivial or not apparent. Swelling of lymph nodes generally results from localized or systemic infection, abscess formation, or malignancy.

Illustration

Lymphatic system - Illustration Thumbnail

Lymphatic system

The lymphatic system filters fluid from around cells. It is an important part of the immune system. When people refer to swollen glands in the neck, they are usually referring to swollen lymph nodes. Common areas where lymph nodes can be easily felt, especially if they are enlarged, are the groin, armpits (axilla), above the clavicle (supraclavicular), in the neck (cervical), and the back of the head just above hairline (occipital).

Illustration

Infectious mononucleosis - Illustration Thumbnail

Infectious mononucleosis

Swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, fatigue and headache are some of the symptoms of mononucleosis, which is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It is generally self-limiting and most patients can recover in 4 to 6 weeks without medicines.

Illustration

Circulation of lymph - Illustration Thumbnail

Circulation of lymph

The lymphatic system is a complex system of fluid drainage and transport, and immune response and disease resistance. Fluid that is forced out of the bloodstream during normal circulation is filtered through lymph nodes to remove bacteria, abnormal cells and other matter. This fluid is then transported back into the bloodstream via the lymph vessels. Lymph only moves in one direction, toward the heart.

Illustration

Lymphatic system - Illustration Thumbnail

Lymphatic system

Lymph nodes produce immune cells to help fight infection. They also filter the lymph fluid and remove foreign material, such as bacteria and cancer cells. They can become swollen from inflammatory conditions, an abscess, cancer, and most commonly from infection. Common areas where lymph nodes can be felt include the groin, armpit, behind the ears, back of the head, sides of the neck and under the jaw and chin.

Illustration

Swollen glands - Illustration Thumbnail

Swollen glands

Lymph nodes play an important part in the body's defense against infection. Swelling might occur even if the infection is trivial or not apparent. Swelling of lymph nodes generally results from localized or systemic infection, abscess formation, or malignancy.

Illustration

 
 
 
 

 

 
 

 
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