Swollen Lymph Nodes

1 What are Swollen Lymph Nodes?

Swollen lymph nodes is a condition which usually occurs when one is exposed to a bacteria or virus.

The condition, if it occurs as a result of infection, is known as lymphadenitis. Rarely, the swollen lymph nodes may be due to cancer. They are part of the body’s lymphatic system, which helps fight against pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and other health problems.

The swollen nodes are generally present in the neck, lower part of the chin, armpits, and groin area.

2 Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of swollen lymph nodes vary depending on the cause.

The lymphatic system consists of a huge network of organs, vessels, and numerous lymph nodes which are located mainly in the brain and neck regions. Swelling in these areas indicates that something is wrong inside your body. Along with swelling, one can experience tenderness and pain in the infected lymph nodes. Other signs and symptoms depend on the cause of the condition and may include:

  • Runny nose: One of the symptoms of swollen lymph nodes is a runny nose. When the nodes swell up they cause the lymph vessels to become active and the nose to run. The problem usually starts with sneezing and progresses from there.
  • Sore throat: Another symptom indicative of swollen lymph nodes is a sore throat. This makes it difficult to speak clearly, and is accompanied by an itching irritation in the throat.
  • FeverFever is another clear symptom of swollen lymph nodes. When the lymphatic system is affected, it causes a fever, usually a mild one.

Problems in the respiratory system like asthma can also be symptomatic of swollen lymph nodes. The nodes become active whenever any kind of infection spreads in the body. Swelling of lymph nodes in the entire body may indicate an infection, rheumatoid arthritis, or other immune disorders. They are also caused by viruses, some of which are very harmful and dangerous, like HIV or mononucleosis. Other indications of swollen lymph nodes in the body include:

  • Swollen limbs: This may indicate a blockage in the lymphatic system due to swelling of lymph nodes under the skin. 
  • Tumor: The nodes may become hard and begin growing rapidly, indicating the presence of a tumor.
  • Sweating at night: Some people experience excessive sweating during the night due to the overactive lymphatic system creating sweat in the body, more so at night when the body is at rest.
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing: Some people find it difficult to swallow or even breathe. This can occur when the nodes to swell up.
  • Unreasonable weight loss: Sometimes, people experience unreasonable weight loss in their body. It is caused by the lymphatic system swelling up the lymph nodes, which debars proper digestion and thus results in weight loss.

Consult a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

3 Causes

Swelling in the lymph nodes is commonly caused by a viral infection such as a cold, but other types of infections can be responsible as well.

The lymphatic system plays a very important role in maintaining the health of our bodies. The lymph nodes are small, round, bean-shaped groups of cells covered by connective tissue. They are mainly responsible for the release of lymphocytes and macrophages, which filter the lymphatic fluid and help eliminate infectious organisms in the body. These nodes are located at various points throughout the body, but swelling of lymph nodes can usually be noticed around the neck, armpit, and groin area. 

Some common infections which can cause swelling of the lymph nodes are:

  • Strep throat: Strep throat is an infection where the throat becomes sore and develops problems like itching and pain.
  • Measles: Measles provides a gateway for bacteria to enter the body and cause swollen lymph nodes.
  • Ear infections: Ear infections can also be a gateway for bacteria to enter the body and cause lymph node swelling.
  • Infected (abscessed) tooth
  • Mononucleosis
  • Skin or wound infections, like cellulitis or erysipelas: Wounds are easy targets for bacteria to enter our body and cause swollen lymph nodes. A cut allows infections and other bacteria to enter and replicate in the body, causing swelling in the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Tuberculosis
  • Sexually transmitted infections, like syphilis: Some of the bacteria which cause swollen lymph nodes are transferred from male sperm to the female vagina.
  • Toxoplasmosis or cat scratch fevers
  • Immune system disorders such as Lupus, which is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects your joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart, and lungs, and Rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease that affects the tissues lining the joints (synovium).

In addition to these, cancers like lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) or leukemia (blood cancer) can also cause swollen lymph nodes.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

4 Making a Diagnosis

Diagnosing swollen lymph nodes is done through a physical exam and by performing other tests.

The doctor will ask several questions, so it is recommended you make a clear note of all important information which may help the doctor diagnose your problem. Some of the questions your doctor may ask include:

  • What are your symptoms? 
  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms? 
  • Have your affected lymph nodes grown in size over time? 
  • Are your affected lymph nodes tender? 
  • Have you been experiencing fever or night sweats?
  • Have you lost weight without trying?
  • Do you have a sore throat or difficulty swallowing
  • Have you experienced any difficulty breathing? 
  • Have your bowel habits changed?
  • What medications are you currently taking? 
  • Have you recently traveled to another country or to tick-inhabited regions? 
  • Did anyone who traveled with you get sick?
  • Have you recently been exposed to new animals? 
  • Were you bitten or scratched?
  • Have you recently had sex with a new partner?
  • Do you practice safe sex? Have you done so since you became sexually active?
  • Do you smoke?

If you have any queries, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor.

Your doctor may further suggest the following tests:

  • A physical exam wherein the doctor will check lymph nodes near the surface of your skin for size, tenderness, warmth, and texture. 
  • Blood tests, depending on what your doctor suspects is causing the swelling. This is most likely to include a complete blood count (CBC), which helps evaluate your overall health and detect a range of disorders, including infections and leukemia.
  • Imaging studies, which may include an X-ray of the chest or CT scans of the affected area to help determine potential sources of infection or find tumors.
  • Lymph node biopsy, which involves the removal of sample tissue from a lymph node or even an entire lymph node for microscopic examination. The method of biopsy could be a fine-needle aspiration (FNA), which your doctor can perform during an office visit, or you may be referred to a surgeon or radiologist. In FNA, the doctor inserts a thin, hollow needle into the lymph node and removes (aspirates) cells, which are then sent to a lab for study.
  • Ultrasound, a noninvasive diagnostic procedure that uses sound waves to create images of organs and tissues. 
  • Excisional biopsy, wherein a portion or complete lymph node is removed for analysis. A surgeon performs this procedure while using local or general anesthetics.

5 Treatment

The treatment for swollen lymph nodes depends on the cause.

If a bacterial infection is the cause, antibiotics will be given; if the cause is a viral infection, antiviral drugs will be suggested; if the condition is due to an immune disorder, the treatment will focus on treating immune system malfunctioning; and if cancer is the culprit, treatment may involve surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, depending on the type of cancer.

Swollen lymph nodes can be cured with medicine or through proper intake of fluids like water, which can decrease the swelling.

Your doctor may suggest you take painkillers like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, etc.), or acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.) to alleviate pain and fever.

6 Lifestyle and Coping

In addition to taking painkillers, applying warmth and compression to the swollen nodes is very helpful in coping with the pain.

7 Risks and Complications

If swollen lymph nodes are caused by an infection and left untreated, the condition may lead to complications like:

  • Abscess formation: An abscess is a localized collection of pus caused by an infection which may cause significant damage if it involves a vital organ. Pus is a fluid made up of white blood cells, dead cells, and the causal invader. An abscess may require drainage and antibiotic treatment. 
  • Bloodstream infection (bacteremia): A bacterial infection anywhere in your body can progress to sepsis, caused by an overwhelming infection of the bloodstream. Sepsis may result in organ failure or death.
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