Swollen Lymph Nodes

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on August 17, 2023
6 min read

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. You can sometimes feel these clusters as little bumps, especially in case of lymphadenopathy or swollen glands.

They're part of your lymphatic system. Along with your spleen, tonsils, and adenoids, they help protect you from harmful germs.

The job of a lymph node is to filter out what's in your lymph fluid as it drains from your cells to your tissues. Lymph fluid contains nutrients, fats, minerals, proteins, and more. The cells in your lymph nodes get rid of anything dangerous in the lymph fluid such as bacteria or viruses, keeping you healthy.

Lymph node locations

You have around 600 lymph nodes in your body. You might be most familiar with the ones in your neck, called cervical lymph nodes. But there are also clusters of them in places such as your armpits and in the crease between your thigh and torso (where your leg begins). Some are in areas you can feel through the skin, but others are buried much deeper.

The most common signs of swollen lymph nodes are:

  • Lymph nodes that feel like they're the size of a kidney bean or larger

  • Tenderness or pain in your lymph nodes

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, such as rheumatoid arthritis)

  • Hard lymph nodes that won’t move or get bigger quickly (signs of certain types of cancer)

Lymph nodes contain immune cells called lymphocytes. These cells 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, such as:

  • A virus, such as a cold
  • A bacterial infection, such as an ear infection, skin infection, or infected tooth
  • Strep throat
  • Measles
  • Mono

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 tick bites
  • A problem with your immune system, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • HIV/AIDS, an infection spread through sexual contact and IV drug use
  • Certain kinds of cancer, including:
    • Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system
    • Leukemia, a cancer of the blood

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 very suddenly

  • Glands that are not just mildly swollen but much larger than usual

  • 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 2-4 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

  • Night sweats

If you notice any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

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:

  • Blood tests

  • X-rays

  • Ultrasound, in which high-frequency sound waves are used to let your doctor see what’s happening inside your body

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, where a powerful magnet and radio waves are used to make detailed images of your organs and tissues

  • Biopsy, in which your doctor removes lymph node tissue so it can be examined under a microscope

  • PET scan, which looks at the chemical activity in parts of your body and may help identify a variety of conditions such as some cancers, heart disease, and brain disorders. (This is done less often.)

  • CT scan, where a series of X-rays are taken from different angles and put together to form a more complete picture

If your swollen lymph nodes aren’t caused by something serious, they'll 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 lots of 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)

You get swollen lymph nodes when your body is fighting off an infection or illness. Lymph nodes are part of your lymphatic system, which help make up your immune system. Your body contains about 600 of them. In most cases, the swelling will go down on its own. But if they're seriously swollen or aren't going down, call your doctor.

  • Is lymph node swelling normal?

Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that your body is fighting off an infection or illness. So most of the time, they're a sign that you're ill with something else.

  • What do swollen lymph nodes feel like?

The lymph nodes that you can feel may be a little painful, but most of the time, they just feel like soft, small balls.

  • Do swollen lymph nodes mean COVID-19?

This doesn't necessarily mean you have COVID-19, but you may. If you think you may have been exposed, you should take a test.

  • Can you get swollen lymph nodes under your arm after the COVID-19 vaccine?

Your lymph nodes swell when they're fighting an infection. So when you get the COVID-19 vaccine, it's possible your body will react similarly and the lymph nodes under the arm that was injected will swell temporarily.