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Swollen Glands

Your throat is sore, your head is in pain, and you feel absolutely miserable. Upon hearing this, the first thing your health care provider will probably do is check for swollen lymph nodes, or "swollen glands."

Swollen glands are a sign that your body is battling an infection or another type of illness. Read on to learn about some of the conditions that can cause swollen glands, and find out what to do if you have one of them.

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What Are Lymph Nodes?

Your lymph nodes are small, round, or bean-shaped masses of tissue. They are part of the lymphatic system that helps your body fight infection and disease. As lymphatic fluid travels through the body, immune cells (called lymphocytes) in the lymph nodes trap bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful substances and destroy them to help prevent their spread. They also keep fluid balance in check.

You're probably already familiar with the lymph nodes in your neck, but there are hundreds of other lymph nodes scattered throughout your body. Other areas where you may be able to feel swollen lymph nodes include:

  • Behind the ears
  • Under the jaw
  • Lower part of the back of the head
  • Armpits
  • Groin

The tonsils in the back of the throat are also a kind of lymph tissue, and they can swell from illnesses such as tonsillitis.

How Do I Know That My Lymph Nodes Are Swollen?

Normally you shouldn't be able to feel your lymph nodes. They measure only about a half-inch across. When you get sick they can swell -- sometimes to two to three times their usual size -- to the point where you can distinctly feel them.

Other symptoms of swollen glands include:

  • Tenderness or pain when you press on them
  • Symptoms of the underlying infection such as fever, sore throat, and mouth sores
  • Red, warm, swollen skin over the lymph node
  • Lump

Swollen lymph nodes that are softer, tender, and move easily are usually a sign of infection or inflammation. A hard lymph node that does not move and does not cause pain needs further evaluation by your health care provider.

What Causes Swollen Glands?

The most common causes of swollen glands include:

  • Bacterial infection such as strep throat
  • Mouth sores or tooth infection
  • Viral infection such as mononucleosis  or "mono"
  • Skin infection
  • Ear infection
  • Sexually transmitted disease
  • Cancers such as leukemia, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and breast cancer
  • Immune system disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and HIV infection
  • Side effect from a vaccine or from certain medications

Swollen Gland Treatments

Once the underlying illness has been treated, the glands should go back to their normal size. Treatment of swollen glands depends on what's causing them.

To relieve the discomfort of swollen glands and the illnesses that cause them, the following home care methods may help:

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil, Motrin, or Aleve. Never give aspirin to a child because of the risk for Reye's syndrome.
  • Apply a warm, wet washcloth to the area.
  • Get enough rest so that your body can recover from the illness.

Call your health care provider if your swollen glands are accompanied by:

  • High fever (over 104 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Skin overlying the swollen lymph node is red

Also, call your health care provider if the swollen lymph node's size becomes larger than 1 inch, the lymph node is very tender or hard, or doesn't go away after a month.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Andrew Seibert, MD on August 13, 2012

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