Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands that store white blood cells and trap bacteria, viruses, and abnormal cells. You have lymph nodes spread throughout your body – in your neck, above your collarbone, under your jaws, under your armpits, and even in your groin.
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are one of the natural ways your body responds to a bacterial or viral infection. When your lymph nodes swell, it’s usually a good thing. It means your lymph nodes are working effectively.
However, in extreme cases, your swollen lymph nodes may be a symptom of cancer.
How do the Lymph Nodes work?
Lymph nodes are a part of your lymphatic glands that filters lymphatic fluid throughout the body.
These lymph glands act like a military roadblock that prevents harmful bacteria, dead cells, viruses, and abnormal cells from passing through the lymph channels and causing an infection.
So when your body has an infection, your small lymph glands may swell up to kill the foreign, invading organisms.
Just like blood vessels, the lymphatic system is made of distinct channels that travel throughout the body. So your neck, groin, and under your armpits may swell up in response to infection and tumors.
When you have an infection, the lymph nodes around the infection will swell up. For example, if a strep throat causes an infection, the lymph nodes in your neck may swell up. People with breast cancer may notice lymph nodes in their armpit.
Suppose you notice swollen lymph nodes around your body. In that case, the infection may have spread throughout your entire body, and it could signal something more severe like HIV, chickenpox, leukemia, or lymphoma.
Since your lymph nodes occur in clusters all over your body, you may feel a soft bump on the affected area when they are swollen.
When your neck swells, the lymph nodes in your neck have accumulated bacteria, viruses, dead cells, and other debris.
To fight off the harmful bacteria causing an infection, your body produces lymphocytes and sends other immune cells to your neck to fight off the harmful germs.
Lymph nodes also store lymphocytes and other immune cells that trap and remove germs, abnormal cells, dead cells, and waste from your body.
As we dig deeper into this article, you’ll discover what causes your swollen lymph nodes, their symptoms, and how to treat them.
What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes in Neck?
When the lymph nodes in your neck swell up, your body is under attack from an infection, illness, or stress.
In rare cases, your swollen lymph nodes may be symptoms of a severe underlying disease like immune system disorder (Lupus) or even cancer.
When harmful bacteria make it in your body and start to multiply, you have an infection.
To prevent these bacteria from multiplying and causing disease, your lymph nodes trap the bacteria and create immune agents to fight them off. Most of the time, your swollen lymph nodes are caused by viral infections.
A lot of infections could cause your lymph nodes could swell.
Common infections include:
- The common cold or flu
- Mononucleosis (Mono)
- HIV infection
- Strep throat
- Ear infections
- Skin infections
- Tooth or gum infections
- Fungal infections
- Staph infections
Sometimes, some severe conditions can cause lymph nodes to swell in several parts of your body.
Serious infections that could trigger multiple swollen lymph nodes include;
- Lyme disease
- Cat scratch disease (Causes swelling of lymph nodes close to the cat scratch)
Immune system disorders
When your immune system isn’t functioning correctly, the lymph glands in your neck may swell.
Immune disorders that can cause swollen lymph nodes in your system include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- The systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
- Sjogren’s syndrome
Most times, swollen lymph nodes aren’t usually serious. But sometimes, they could indicate malignancy or cancer.
These body cancers may cause your lymph nodes to swell, and in some cases, harden and feel rubbery.
Lymphoma, specific cancer that affects the lymphatic system can cause swelling in multiple lymph nodes around the body.
When existing cancer spreads, it could also cause your lymph nodes to swell.
Early detection is the best treatment for any cancer. If your cancer spreads from one lymph node to another, it could reduce your chances of survival.
Other cancers that could cause lymph nodes to swell in your neck include;
- Leukemia (cancer of the blood)
- Hodgkin disease
- Kaposi sarcoma
- Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system)
- Metastases (the spread of existing cancer)
Although lymphoma can affect people of any age, it’s prevalent in males, adults above 40, and people with white skin.
If the swollen lymph nodes on your neck are a cancer symptom, the swelling in your neck may feel rubbery and hard.
Other symptoms that come with swollen lymph nodes include;
- Weight Loss
- Profuse sweating at night
Swelling in the groin lymph nodes
If you notice soft bumps on either side of your groin, you may have swollen lymph nodes.
Groin lymph nodes are also called inguinal lymph nodes.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) like gonorrhea and syphilis can cause inflamed swollen lymph nodes in your groin.
Severe injury to your legs, infections that affect your lower body, and other recurring infections can also cause lymph nodes to swell in your groin.
Symptoms of Swollen Lymph Nodes
When lymph nodes in your neck swell, it’s a sign your body is working on getting rid of infections.
Your swollen lymph nodes could also be a symptom of an underlying disease like rheumatoid arthritis.
Other symptoms that could accompany swollen lymph nodes in the neck include;
- Pain in your lymph nodes
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes may feel tender to touch and grow to the size of a kidney bean or grape.
- Hardened lymph nodes that don’t move may be a sign of certain cancers.
Pro tip: When lymph nodes swell up in different places in your body, it could be a symptom of an immune system disorder
Other problems that can cause swollen lymph glands in the neck
Some health problems that can cause swollen lymph glands in the neck include:
- Strep throat
- Sinus infection
- Mouth sores
- HIV infection
- Syphilis or gonorrhea
- Cold or influenza
- Ear infection
- Allergic responses to medications
Treating swollen lymph in your neck
Swollen lymph nodes are usually not a cause for concern. In fact, your swollen lymph nodes can clear without treatment in about 2-3 weeks.
Although they can swell when you have an infection, your swollen lymph nodes will return to normal once the disease disappears.
If the swollen lymph on your neck is a symptom of an underlying disease, the swelling will reduce once you treat the condition.
Your doctor may prescribe over-the-medications (OTC) like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen to reduce the pain in your neck.
Pro tip: Make sure you avoid giving aspirin to children because it could trigger other medical conditions.
If the cause of your swollen lymph nodes is a bacterial infection, your doctor may administer antibiotics that’ll clear up the infection.
When your tissue swells up alongside your lymph nodes, your doctor may recommend anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the swelling.
If the cause of swollen lymph nodes in your neck is cancer, your doctor may advise surgery, chemotherapy, or radiography.
Home remedies to treat swollen lymph nodes in your neck
If the cause of your swollen lymph nodes isn’t serious, you can try some home remedies to relieve the symptoms.
Common home remedies that can help with symptoms of swollen lymph nodes include:
Warm compress: Applying a damp, warm washcloth on your swollen neck may help reduce the pain.
- You can soak hot water and try a couple of times a day.
- Getting plenty of rest will speed up your recovery.
- Drink plenty of water and fresh juices to improve neck pain.
- You can take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
When should you see a doctor for your swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph nodes don’t usually require medical treatment. Usually, your swollen glands should clear up after a few weeks. However, if your swollen glands don’t return to their normal size after the infection is treated, you need to see your doctor.
Other signs you should watch out for before seeing your doctor include;
- If your lymph nodes don’t return to normal after 2-4 weeks or if your child has swollen lymph nodes, it should return to normal in 5 days.
- Lymph nodes that swell up abruptly
- If your lymph nodes feel hard and don’t move when you touch them.
- If you see pus in the swollen lymph nodes, you should see a doctor.
- Swollen lymph nodes that come with sudden weight loss
- The affected area turns red or purple
- The affected area feels warm
- When you have enormous lymph nodes (bigger than a kidney bean or a grape).
- If you have swelling in your groin (You may have an STD)
- If your swollen lymph nodes come with a fever that persists.
- Experience profuse night sweating
If you notice any of these when you have swollen lymph nodes, you must visit your doctor immediately.
How to check lymph nodes for swelling
If you’re wondering if your lymph nodes are swollen, you can gently rub the sides of your neck.
Swollen lymph nodes will feel like soft, small bumps that are tender to touch—your swollen lymph nodes may be the size of a small pea or a grape.
In some cases, your lymph nodes may swell suddenly and have an abnormally large size.
Your lymph nodes are present on both sides of the neck, so if you feel inflammation or notice one side of your neck is bigger than the other, you may have swollen lymph nodes.
If you have swollen lymph nodes, you may feel pain when eating foods hard to chew, turning your heads sharply, or even bobbing your head.
Depending on the type of infection that causes your lymph nodes to swell, your swollen lymph nodes can also accompany other symptoms; these symptoms may include strep throat, common cold, and fever.
Diagnosing Swollen Lymph Nodes
Before your doctor diagnoses you with swollen lymph nodes, he may have to give you a physical examination.
Since he knows where the lymph nodes are in your body, he should pinpoint where you have swollen lymph nodes and what’s causing your nodes to swell.
Your doctor may also ask about your medical history.
If a physical test isn’t enough to diagnose your swollen lymph nodes, your doctor may recommend
- X-ray scans
- Biopsy: Surgical removal of lymph node tissue before it’s observed under the microscope.
- Blood tests
- Ultrasound scans: Using high-frequency sound waves to examine the internal body.
- Magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI): Using magnetic and radio waves to examine the internal body.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: Although it is used less commonly, the PET scan uses radioactive substances to view the chemical and metabolic processes in your body.
Your doctor may request a PET scan to identify heart diseases, certain cancers, and brain disorders.
Your lymph nodes are an essential part of your immune system. Just like your spleen, tonsils, and adenoids, your lymphatic system protects you from harmful organisms.
Your lymph nodes contain lymphocytes and other immune cells that fight bacteria, viruses, and other germs that can make you ill.
As your lymph nodes filter these infectious agents, your body produces more immune cells that accumulate at your lymph nodes and cause them to swell.
Your body comes in contact with many infectious agents, and any of these infections could cause your lymph nodes to swell.
Luckily, swollen lymph nodes are not usually serious. In fact, the swollen lymph nodes on your neck may disappear on their own after a few weeks. Besides, it’s super easy to treat swollen lymph nodes.
However, if your swollen lymph nodes don’t return to their original size 3 weeks after treatment, you need to consult your doctor.
High fever, sweating at night, and abdominal pain are other warning signs that could accompany your swollen lymph nodes.
Most of the time, the cause of your swollen lymph nodes will determine the type of treatment your doctor will administer.