Swollen glands are a sign that your body is fighting off an infection or an illness. Most of the time, they return to normal size when their job is done.
These glands are your lymph nodes. You have them throughout your body. But there are clusters of them in places like your neck, under your arm and in the crease between your thigh and your torso (were your leg begins). You can sometimes feel these clusters as little bumps, especially if they’re swollen.
Why Do They Swell?
These round and bean-shaped glands have immune cells called lymphocytes in them. They attack bacteria, viruses, and other things that can make you sick. When you’re fighting off harmful germs, your body makes more of those immune cells -- that causes the swelling.
Your lymph nodes come across all kinds of germs, so they can be swollen for lots of reasons. Usually, it’s something that’s easy to treat, like a cold, an ear infection, or an abscessed (infected) tooth.
Much less often, it can be a more serious illness. They can include tuberculosis (a potentially serious infection of bacteria that usually affects your lungs), a problem with your immune system (like lupus), or certain kinds of cancer, including lymphoma (a cancer that starts in your lymphatic system) and leukemia (a cancer of the cells that make blood).
When Should I Call My Doctor?
In most cases, swollen glands return to normal size after the illness or infection has passed. But here are some things to watch for:
- Glands that swelled up very suddenly
- Glands that are much larger than they should be, not just mildly swollen
- Glands that feel hard or don’t move when you push on them
- Glands that stay swollen for more than 5 days in children or 2 to 4 weeks in adults
- The area around the glands turns red or purple
- Swelling in your arm or groin
- Sudden weight loss
- A fever that doesn’t go away
- Night sweats
If you notice any of these, see your doctor. If you have an infection, it’s important to treat it early so it doesn’t cause an abscess (a lump of pus) or an infection in your bloodstream.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your doctor might be able to get an idea of what’s making your glands swell by where they are in your body. She also may recommend one of these tests to find out more about what’s going on:
- Biopsy. Lymph node tissue is removed and looked at under a microscope.
- PET scan. This looks at the chemical activity in parts of your body. It may help identify a variety of conditions like some cancers, heart disease and brain disorders.
- CT scan. A series of X-rays are taken from different angles and put together to form a more complete picture.
If what’s causing the swelling isn’t something like a virus that will go away on its own, treatment can include: