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Pain Management Health Center

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Swollen Glands

Your throat is sore, your head hurts, 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 found throughout your body. They are part of your immune system -- more specifically 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.

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