Swollen Lymph Node

1 Swollen Lymph Node Summary

Lymph nodes or glands are present throughout the body and are important parts of the immune system. These nodes are visible when swollen. Swelling of lymph glands is known as lymphadenopathy.

They are easily noticeable behind the ears, in the neck and armpits. Most of the lymph nodes are present in the head region. These nodes store white blood cells and kill the foreign particles that invade the body.

These nodes act as a checkpoint and stop the invaders like bacteria and viruses. At the time of an infection or disease, lymph nodes accumulate dead cells, bacteria, and other such debris. The lymph glands may swell few centimeters during an infection or disease.

The nodes can be seen singly or in groups. They may be as small as the head of a pin or an olive. Groups of lymph nodes are found in the neck, groin, and armpit. They are generally not tender or painful.

Infections are one of the most common causes of swelling in lymph glands. It is also caused by inflammation and cancer. Some of the cancers spread to lymph glands and lead to swollen lymph glands.

Swelling of the lymph node causes pain and tenderness in the glands. Other symptoms associated with swollen lymph node depends on the underlying cause of swelling.

Some of the other signs and symptoms are seen alongside swollen lymph gland include:

  • Symptoms of respiratory infection like running nose and sore throat
  • General swelling of lymph nodes throughout the body
  • Swelling in limbs
  • Hard and enlarged nodes
  • Fever
  • Night sweats

General swelling of lymph nodes is usually seen in the case of an infection like HIV or immune system disorders like lupus. Swelling in the limbs indicate a blockage in the lymphatic channels caused by a swollen lymph node. Nodes are seen to enlarge at a fast rate in tumors.

In most of the cases, the swelling in the nodes reduces when the underlying infection resolves. In certain cases, a swelling in the node warrants medical attention.

Doctor visit is required if the node: 

  • Has a sudden, unexplained swelling
  • Continues growing and persists for more than two weeks
  • Is hard to touch and does not move freely
  • Have associated symptoms like fever, night sweats, and weight loss
  • Is accompanied by difficulty in swallowing or a sore throat

Diagnosis of the underlying cause is based on medical history, physical examination, imaging studies and blood tests. In some cases, lymph node biopsy is also recommended.

Treatment for the swelling depends on the actual cause of the condition. A viral infection that results in swollen lymph glands may resolve on its own without any specific treatment.

Medications and therapies that treat the underlying condition are the best treatment methods for controlling swelling in nodes. Some home treatments are effective in alleviating pain and swelling in mild forms of lymphadenopathy.

When the underlying cause is left untreated, it may lead to complications like abscess formation in the lymph nodes. Bacterial infection of the gland may result in sepsis or bloodstream infection, a potentially life-threatening condition.

2 Causes

Swelling of lymph nodes is caused by an increased activity of the node due to various triggers including infection or inflammation. The lymph nodes filter the lymphatic fluid and destroy the foreign bodies present in them.

During and infection, the nodes accumulates debris in them. The debris may contain dead bacteria or other invading organisms and dead cells. The common cold is a very common cause of swelling in lymph glands.

Viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic infection may result in swollen lymph nodes

  • Viral infections including chickenpox, infectious mononucleosis, adenoviral infections, measles, herpes, and HIV cause swollen lymph nodes.
  • Bacterial infections that lead to swelling in the nodes are streptococcus, tuberculosis, chlamydia, syphilis, staphylococcus, cat scratch disease and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Toxoplasmosis and leishmaniasis are parasitic infections that can lead to swelling in the lymph glands.
  • Fungal infections like coccidiomycosis and histoplasmosis also cause swollen lymph nodes.
  • Tooth-related infections and head lice are other causes of swelling in the lymph nodes.
  • Inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus are also possible causes of this condition.
  • Many types of cancers are also known to cause swelling of lymph nodes. This includes lymphomas which originate in the lymph nodes and leukemia which originate in blood cells. In some cases, cancer from another part of the body may spread to the lymph node as in breast cancer which spread to the node in the axilla.
  • Some of the less common causes of swollen lymph nodes include genetic lipid storage disease and transplant graft rejection.
  • Certain medications like anti-seizure and antimalarial drugs lead to swelling in the lymph nodes.

In some cases, a swelling in the lymph node may be a normal occurrence. Some children or young adults may have small, flat swollen lymph node under the jaw.

Slightly swollen groin nodes are also seen to be normal in young individuals. In some rare cases, the underlying cause for the development of swelling in a lymph node may not be determined.

A swollen lymph node may be a sign of cancer if it has the following symptoms:

  • The swelling gets bigger in size and persists for more than three weeks
  • It is hard to touch but remains painless
  • Does not move flexibly when touched
  • Is associated with other symptoms like night sweats and unexplained weight loss

Lymph nodes are present singly or in groups. Each group drains the lymphatic vessels of a specific region. Lymph glands of the neck swell due to infections like tonsillitis, common cold and throat infections.

Lymph glands at the back of the head remain swollen with scalp conditions and head lice. Skin infections in the arm lead to swelling of lymph nodes in the armpit.

Leg infections and nappy rash may result in swollen lymph nodes in the groin. Viral infections generally affect the whole body. Thus flu and chicken pox may result in swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, and groins.

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3 Diagnosis and Treatment

The size of a swollen lymph node may range from a small pea to a large cherry. Swelling may be painful and the node may move while touched. Nodes present closer to the surface of the body is usually felt during a physical examination for the diagnosis of the underlying condition.

Nodes in the axilla or underarms, sides of the neck, and groin can be felt easily to check for swelling. The most visible lymph node in the body is the tonsil, present at the back of the throat. Lymph nodes located deep inside the body are checked using imaging studies like CT scan.

A complete medical history and a thorough physical examination help in identifying the underlying cause of the swelling. Other symptoms accompanying swelling of lymph nodes are evaluated. This includes details of a sore throat, fever, chills, medications, weight loss, and travel history.

The location of the swollen lymph node may indicate the causes of the condition as the nodes respond to a disturbance in the general location. Thus skin infection in hand may cause swelling in the nodes under the arm.

Swollen lymph nodes are characterized on the basis of tenderness, size, mobility, hardness and firmness. These characteristics are also useful in identifying the probable cause of swelling. For example, hard, immovable, growing node may be due to cancer in the node.

Swelling caused by infections are generally small, tender and movable. If cancer is the probable cause of swelling, lymph node biopsy is suggested. A biopsy will also help in identifying the type of cancer.

Swollen lymph nodes do not require any specific treatment. Any treatment that focuses on controlling the underlying condition will help in alleviating the swelling. In most of the cases, monitoring is the conventional method.

The swelling in the lymph node caused by viral infection may reduce on its own when the infection resolves. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infection and this brings down the swelling.

Immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus that cause swollen lymph node, is controlled by specific treatment. Swelling caused by cancer reduces with radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and surgery.

Simple home remedies like applying warm, wet compress help to reduce swelling. Over the counter pain medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen helps to reduce fever and swelling. Getting adequate rest is very important in recovering from the underlying disease.

Abscesses in the nodes are drained by opening the skin and filling. The appropriate treatment method is decided by the doctor depending on the probable cause of swelling. Treating cancer with radiation, chemotherapy and surgery may help to alleviate the swollen lymph nodes to a certain extent.

Lymph nodes may remain swollen for some time after the condition is treated or the infection is controlled. In children, the swelling may remain and the glands may be visible for few weeks after the successful treatment of the underlying condition.

Abscess formation is the main complication associated with swollen lymph nodes, particularly if the infection is not treated. Abscess formation needs drainage and treatment with antibiotics. It may also lead to the enlargement of the skin under the lymph node.

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