Swollen lymph nodes

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Lymph nodes are present throughout the body. There are nearly 600 to 700 of these bean shaped glands that lie like bulbs at certain junctions of the lymphatic channels.

These are an important part of the immune system. These act as filters to remove the germs, infections, toxins etc. that the lymph brings from the tissues of the body.

Why do lymph nodes swell?

Because lymph nodes play an important part in fighting infections, in case of an infection they may swell. This may mean swelling of one or more lymph nodes.

In children a node is considered enlarged if it is more than 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) in diameter.

Where are the lymph nodes situated?

Lymph nodes lie in clusters at the –

  • Armpits
  • Groin
  • Sides of the neck, back of the scalp and behind the ears
  • Under the lower jaw and the chin

Common conditions that lead to swollen lymph nodes

There are some common conditions that lead to swollen lymph nodes, these include infections, cancer and other diseases. (1-4)

Infections

Infections, such as boils, abscesses or skin infections can cause swelling in the linked lymph node.

For example, if there is a major infection of the hand, there may be swollen glands at the armpit.

Infections are the commonest cause of swollen lymph nodes.

This type of lymph node swelling is usually painful. The nodes appear warm, red and are tender to touch.

There may be accompanying symptoms like fever with body aches, chills etc.

Some common causes include ear infections, gum or tooth abscess or infections, tonsillitis, skin infections, cellulitis etc.

The condition with swollen lymph nodes is termed lymphadenopathy. If there is accompanying inflammation of the nodes the condition is termed lymphadenitis.

Cancer

Lymph nodes may be swollen if a cancer or tumor from the end of the lymphatic channels has spread to the glands.

For example, if a breast tumor or cancer has spread to the lymph nodes that drain lymphatic channels from the breast, there may be swollen lymph nodes at the arm pit.

This type of lymph node swelling is usually painless.

Some blood cancers and those affecting lymph channels like Hodgkin’s or Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma also lead to lymph node swelling.

Other diseases

Other diseases like Rheumatoid arthritis and HIV AIDS infection may also lead to lymph node swelling.

How long does the swelling last?

In case of infections the swollen lymph nodes usually disappears in a couple of days without treatment.

Antibiotics and over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol (Acetaminophen) or ibuprofen may be taken to relieve the pain and inflammation.

If the glands are swollen due to viral infections like rubella (German measles), glandular fever or mononucleosis usually they may affect the glands of the whole body.

Treatment usually involves addressing the symptoms, plenty of rest and clear fluids.

However, it may be time to call the health care provider if the lymph nodes do not get smaller after several weeks or enlarge progressively.

It is also a sign of cancer if the lymph nodes feel hard, rubbery, and painless or fixed to the underlying structures.

It is especially important to contact the doctor if this swelling is accompanied by fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss that is a feature of lymphomas.

Edited by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

What are lymph nodes?
Structure and function of lymph nodes
Lymph nodes and disease
Lymph node removal

Sources

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0003586/
  2. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1899053-overview#showall
  3. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/swollen-glands/Pages/Introduction.aspx
  4. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/937855-overview#showall

Last Updated: Jun 27, 2012

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