Swollen lymph nodes usually occur as a result of exposure to bacteria or viruses. When swollen lymph nodes are caused by an infection, this is known as lymphadenitis. Rarely, swollen lymph nodes are caused by cancer. Your lymph nodes, also called lymph glands, play a vital role in your body's ability to fight off infections. They function as filters, trapping viruses, bacteria and other causes of illnesses before they can infect other parts of your body. Common areas where you might notice swollen lymph nodes include your neck, under your chin, in your armpits and in your groin. In some cases, the passage of time and warm compresses may be all you need to treat swollen lymph nodes. Treatment of lymphadenitis depends on the cause.
Your lymphatic system is a network of organs, vessels and lymph nodes situated throughout your body. Many lymph nodes are located in your head and neck region. Lymph nodes that frequently swell are in this area, as well as in your armpits and groin area. Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that something is wrong somewhere in your body. When your lymph nodes first swell, you might notice:
- Tenderness and pain in the lymph nodes
- Swelling that may be the size of a pea or kidney bean, or even larger in the lymph nodes
A lymph node is a small, round or bean-shaped cluster of cells covered by a capsule of connective tissue. The cells are a combination of lymphocytes — which produce protein particles that capture invaders, such as viruses — and macrophages, which break down the captured material. Lymphocytes and macrophages filter your lymphatic fluid as it travels through your body and protect you by destroying invaders. Lymph nodes are located in groups, and each group drains a specific area of your body. You may be more likely to notice swelling in certain areas, such as in the lymph nodes in your neck, under your chin, in your armpits and in your groin. The site of the swollen lymph nodes may help identify the underlying cause.
If infection is the cause of your swollen lymph nodes and isn't treated, these complications might occur:
- Abscess formation. An abscess is a localized collection of pus caused by an infection. Pus contains fluid, white blood cells, dead tissue and bacteria or other invaders. An abscess may require drainage and antibiotic treatment.
- Bloodstream infection (bacteremia). A bacterial infection anywhere in your body can progress to sepsis, which is an overwhelming infection of the bloodstream. Sepsis may progress to organ failure and death. Treatment involves hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics.
Swollen lymph nodes caused by a virus may return to normal after the viral infection resolves. Antibiotics are not useful to treat viral infections. Treatment for swollen lymph nodes from other causes depends on the cause:
- Infection. The most common treatment for swollen lymph nodes caused by a bacterial infection is antibiotics. If your swollen lymph nodes are due to an HIV infection, you'll receive specific treatment for that condition.
- Immune disorder. If your swollen lymph nodes are a result of certain conditions, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, treatment is directed at the underlying condition.
- Cancer. Swollen nodes caused by cancer require treatment for the cancer. Depending on the type of cancer, treatment may involve surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
If you have swollen lymph nodes, you're likely to start by first seeing your family doctor. When you call to set up your appointment, you may be urged to seek immediate medical care if you're experiencing severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing or swallowing.