Swollen lymph nodes 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.
Lymph nodes are round, bean-shaped glands, and you have them throughout your body. There are clusters of them in places like your neck, under your arm, and in the crease between your thigh and your torso (where your leg begins). You can sometimes feel these clusters as little bumps, especially if they're swollen.
They're part of your lymphatic system. Along with your spleen, tonsils, and adenoids, they help protect you from harmful germs.
Symptoms of Swollen Lymph Nodes
The most common signs are:
Tenderness or pain in your lymph nodes
Swelling that makes your lymph nodes the size of a kidney bean or possibly larger
Because swollen lymph nodes are usually linked to some type of illness, you might also have other symptoms, depending on what that illness is:
Runny nose, sore throat, or fever (caused by an upper respiratory infection)
Swelling of clusters of lymph nodes in different places in your body (caused by an infection or an immune system disorder, like rheumatoid arthritis)
Hard lymph nodes that won’t move or get bigger quickly (signs of certain types of cancer)
Causes of Swollen Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes 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 relatively easy to treat, like:
- A virus, like a cold
- A bacterial infection, like an ear infection, skin infection, or infected tooth
Much less often, it can be a more serious illness. They can include:
- Tuberculosis, an infection that usually affects your lungs
- Lyme disease, an infection spread through a tick bite
- A problem with your immune system, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
- HIV/AIDS, an infection spread through sexual contact and IV drug use
- Certain kinds of cancer, including:
When to See a Doctor for Swollen Lymph Nodes
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, it feels warm or you see pus
Swelling in your arm or groin
Sudden weight loss
A fever that doesn't go away
If you notice any of these, see your doctor.
Swollen Lymph Nodes Diagnosis
Your doctor will start by asking you about your medical history and giving you a physical exam. They might be able to get an idea of what's making your glands swell by where they are in your body.
They also may recommend one of these tests to find out more about what's going on:
Ultrasound. High-frequency sound waves are used to let your doctor see what’s happening inside your body.
Magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI). A powerful magnet and radio waves are used to make detailed images of your organs and tissues.
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. This is done less commonly.
CT scan. A series of X-rays are taken from different angles and put together to form a more complete picture.
Swollen Lymph Node Treatment and Home Remedies
If your swollen lymph nodes aren’t caused by something serious, they will go away on their own. A few things may help with any discomfort while you wait for it to run its course:
Warm compress. A washcloth rinsed in hot water and placed on the area that hurts may help ease pain.
Rest. Getting good rest can help you get over a mild illness faster.
Over-the-counter pain relievers: Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen may make you feel better. (Talk to your doctor before giving aspirin to children or teenagers.)
If something more serious is causing the swelling, treatment can include:
Antibiotics for an infection caused by bacteria
Medications that help with inflammation (for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis)
Surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy (for types of cancer)