Neck Lumps: Causes and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Lauren Castiello, MS, AGNP-C
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A neck lump is a protuberance or localized area of swelling in the neck. Other general terms used to describe lumps in the neck include neck bump, nodule, contusion, tumor, growth, and cyst. Lumps in the neck can be the result of various conditions, including infections, inflammation, tumors, and trauma.

This article will explain what a neck lump is and what can cause them. It will also explain treatments for different causes of neck lumps.

What is a neck lump?

Someone holding their neck
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A lump in the neck, also known as a neck mass, is a swollen part of the neck resulting from various causes. It can be a small or big lump situated anywhere on the neck.

Most lumps are benign, meaning it’s likely they are harmless. However, some neck lumps can be a symptom of a more serious problem.

What do they feel like?

Depending on the specific cause, a lump in your neck may be single or multiple, soft or firm, painful or painless. They may grow rapidly or may not change in size.

Who gets them?

Neck lumps can occur in any age group or population.

Read more about lumps under the skin.

What causes a neck lump?

Neck lumps have many possible causes, including:

  • trauma
  • infection
  • inflammatory disease
  • benign cysts
  • tumors
  • cancer

Swollen lymph nodes are a common cause of a lump in the neck. Lymph nodes are small clusters of immune cells that function as part of the body’s immune system.

There are more than 600 lymph nodes throughout your body, and the ones most frequently enlarged or swollen are the lymph nodes in the neck, under the chin, in the armpits, and in the groin.

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck can be a sign of an infection, such as by:

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck may also be a sign of certain types of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or Hodgkin’s disease.

Read more about lymphoma.

Common infectious causes of a neck lump

Neck lumps can be the result of viral or bacterial infections. Infections that commonly cause neck lumps include:

  • Abscesses: An abscess is a collection of pus under the skin, usually from a bacterial infection. They can be painful and treatment usually includes antibiotics, draining the abscess, or letting it shrink away naturally.
  • Boils: Boils are similar to abscesses resulting from a bacteria infection. They develop when a hair follicle and the surrounding tissue become infected, resulting in a lump under the skin.
  • The common cold: Common colds come from a virus which causes symptoms like a stuffy and runny nose, sore throat, and cough. A cold may also cause swollen glands in the neck.
  • An ear infection: Bacteria or viruses can cause ear infections, which are common in children. Symptoms can sometimes include lumps under the skin.
  • Mononucleosis: Mono is a viral infection resulting from the Epstein-Barr virus. It can cause extreme fatigue, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in the head and neck.
  • Strep throat: This is a bacterial throat infection. Symptoms also include swollen lymph nodes.
  • Tonsillitis: This is inflammation of the tonsils, which are located in the back of the throat. Because of their location, it can result in swollen glands in the neck.

Other infectious causes of a neck lump

There are also less common but potentially life threatening infectious conditions that can cause neck lumps, including:

  • cat scratch fever: a bacterial infection from getting scratched or bitten by a cat that carries the bacteria
  • cellulitis: a bacterial skin infection
  • salivary gland infection: any infection that occurs in the salivary glands
  • HIV: a virus that attacks the immune system
  • AID: the late stage of HIV
  • syphilis: a sexually transmitted infection caused by bacteria
  • tuberculosis: a serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs

Autoimmune diseases that can cause a neck lump

Neck lumps can also be due to issues with the immune system, such as:

  • Graves’ disease: This is a type of hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) that results in excessive thyroid hormone production. It may cause a lump in the throat or an enlarged thyroid gland, known as a goiter.
  • Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis: This is a chronic autoimmune disease in children and adolescents. It’s characterized by joint inflammation.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This is a chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation. RA can sometimes cause lumps to appear on the body.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus: In this disorder, the body attacks its healthy cells and tissues. This can lead to swelling in various places on the body, including the neck.

Cancers that can cause a neck lump

Some cancers may sometimes cause lumps in the neck to develop, including:

  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: These cancers are both located throughout the body’s lymphatic system. Symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin.
  • Leukemia: This is cancer of the blood or bone marrow. Symptoms can include swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin.
  • Melanoma: This is cancer arising in the melanocytes, or pigment-producing cells. Melanoma occurs in the skin or other parts of the body.
  • Thyroid cancer: The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, responsible for various bodily functions such as temperature and metabolism. Symptoms of thyroid cancer can include lumps in the neck and swollen lymph glands.

Other cancers that could cause neck lumps include:

  • metastasized cancer that has traveled to the lymph nodes
  • non-melanoma skin cancers
  • oral, mouth, or larynx cancer

Benign tumors that can cause a neck lump

Benign tumors that could cause lumps to occur in the neck include:

  • fibroma: a benign tumor composed of fibrous or connective tissue
  • lipoma: a benign fatty growth
  • nevi: moles of the skin
  • salivary gland tumor

Other causes of neck lumps

Neck lumps can also result from:

  • allergic reactions
  • broken bones, such as a fractured collarbone
  • bruising or hematoma
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • a goiter
  • insect stings or bite injuries
  • lymphatic obstructions, blockages in the lymph system

How do you diagnose a neck lump?

Your doctor will likely do a physical exam and run through a few tests to determine the cause of any lumps in your neck. Some tests they might use include:

  • blood tests, including a white blood cell count and complete blood cell count
  • ultrasound
  • X-ray
  • MRI of the neck and head

Your doctor may also refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

When should you contact a doctor?

While often harmless, sometimes a lump in the neck is due to a serious condition, such as a thyroid crisis, infection, or life threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Seek immediate medical care if you or someone you are with develops:

  • a neck lump due to an injury
  • chest pain
  • palpitations
  • difficulty breathing
  • a change in consciousness
  • an inability to swallow
  • hives
  • swelling of the throat, face, or mouth

How do you treat a neck lump?

Treatment for neck lumps will wholly depend on the cause.

Bacterial infections are usually treated with antibiotics, but antibiotics do not work on viruses. The immune system usually fights off viruses on its own, but your doctor may also recommend antiviral medications and vaccines for prevention.

The main treatment for autoimmune conditions are medications that reduce inflammation and calm the immune system response, and immunosuppressants to reduce the activity of the immune system.

Treating lumps in the neck that are due to cancer is usually a combination treatment plan including:

What are the potential complications of a neck lump?

Left untreated, serious causes of neck lumps may worsen and even become life threatening.

Untreated or poorly managed lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers that cause lumps in the neck can spread and at worst, lead to death. A localized bacterial infection could also spread to the blood if left untreated.

Following your treatment plan for serious causes of neck lumps can help reduce your risk of complications, including:

  • rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease that can develop as a complication of strep throat
  • scarlet fever, a condition including a rash that results from strep infections
  • shock
  • spread of cancer
  • spread of infection to the blood, known as sepsis
  • toxic shock syndrome

Summary

A lump in the neck is a protuberance or swelling in the neck area. Lumps can be the result of various causes.

Most neck lumps are benign or due to minor infections that cause the lymph nodes in the neck to swell. However, some lumps may be a sign of something more serious, such as cancer or life threatening infections.

If you develop a lump in your neck that does not go away after a while, seek advice from your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Lauren Castiello, MS, AGNP-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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