What Is Cervical Lymphadenopathy?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on July 07, 2023
4 min read

The lymph nodes in your neck are small, and you usually can’t feel them unless infection or inflammation causes them to get bigger. Cervical lymphadenopathy is a condition where the lymph nodes in your neck swell.

You have lymph nodes all over your body. These small nodules are part of your lymphatic system, which serves to:

  • Protect your body against microbes
  • Maintain appropriate fluid levels‌
  • Adequately absorb nutrients

When needed, your lymphatic system sends out white blood cells called lymphocytes to fight microbes that may make you sick. But when your lymph nodes produce too many white blood cells, they may become swollen.

When the cervical lymph nodes in your neck swell, they aren’t usually painful. In some cases, they may be tender to the touch or cause you discomfort. They may feel firm or rubbery, and they may stay in one place or shift around under your skin.

Cervical lymphadenopathy and cervical lymphadenitis are similar, so the two conditions may be misdiagnosed. Cervical lymphadenitis is a specific infection of the cervical lymph nodes. It’s often caused by bacteria or a virus. For example, Mycobacterium tuberculosis can lead to nontuberculous cervical lymphadenitis. Cat scratch disease is lymphadenitis caused by bacteria called Bartonella henselae that spread to your cervical lymph nodes.

Cervical lymphadenopathy is different because it’s usually limited to the inflammatory processes happening in your neck and sinuses. This condition may happen when your body fighting the following:

  • Throat infection
  • Common cold
  • Dental problems
  • Ear infection
  • Bronchiti‌s
  • Eye infection

Infections caused by cervical lymphadenopathy may be viral or bacterial, but they aren’t centralized in the lymph nodes. Some cancers affecting your head and neck may also cause the condition. These include cancers of the:

  • Skin and other soft tissue
  • Nose
  • Sinuses
  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Vocal cords
  • Salivary glands‌
  • Thyroid glands

Cervical lymphadenopathy is very common in children. It may also be more pronounced than in adults because children’s lymph nodes are small and look more obvious when inflamed. The symptoms of cervical lymphadenopathy are very similar for adults and children and may include:

  • Lumps located under your jaw, on the sides or back of your neck
  • Coinciding lumps may also appear in your armpits, groin, chest, or stomach
  • Pain or tender feeling around the affected lymph nodes
  • Skin turning red or feeling warm to the touch
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Rash
  • Losing your appetite
  • Aching muscles
  • Headache
  • Feeling tired
  • Losing weight without explanation‌

These symptoms may happen in many health conditions, so talk to your doctor for a specific diagnosis if you have these symptoms.

The first step in diagnosing cervical lymphadenopathy is completing a physical exam. Your doctor may ask about your symptoms and your medical history. They may be particularly interested to learn about your history of infection in your sinuses and neck area, including your throat, ears, salivary glands, and skin.

If your doctor needs further confirmation, they may complete an ultrasound, CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of your neck. The type of imaging will depend on what your doctor wants to learn about your condition.

Cervical lymphadenopathy isn’t a disease of its own. Instead, it’s often a sign of an underlying health condition that causes infection or inflammation. Your doctor reviews all of your symptoms to decide what other tests are necessary for a specific diagnosis.

If your case of cervical lymphadenopathy is limited to a single area, it doesn’t usually need further evaluation. But if the infection and inflammation are causing you to lose weight, feel tired, or have a fever or night sweats, there may be reason for concern.

Serious conditions like cancer, tuberculosis, infectious mononucleosis, or AIDS each require specific lab tests and imaging of their own. In some cases, your doctor may request a biopsy of your lymph node for further diagnosis.

Treatment depends on what is causing your lymph nodes to swell. Cervical lymphadenopathy usually resolves on its own when the underlying condition is treated. If you have an infection, antimicrobial or antibiotic medications may be necessary. Autoimmune conditions may require anti-inflammatory drugs or other treatments.

In some cases, your lymph nodes may become so damaged that they need to be removed. Your doctor decides this based on careful review of your condition. Removing any of your lymph nodes is considered as a last resort.

A healthy diet and regular exercise will help your overall health but may not change the condition of your lymph nodes in the case of cervical lymphadenopathy. But maintaining a healthy lifestyle may improve the health conditions that are causing your lymph nodes to swell. Talk to your doctor about changes you can make to improve your health and prevent future cases of cervical lymphadenopathy.