Swollen Neck: Medical Causes and Complications

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is neck swelling?

Neck swelling is an accumulation of fluid in the neck tissues or inflammation in the neck. Neck inflammation can arise from an infection, injury, or a recent medical procedure. Benign skin conditions can cause small areas of the neck to appear swollen. Swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck is a common symptom of many different types of viral and bacterial infections. Thyroid gland enlargement is a familiar cause of neck swelling in adults. In rare cases, neck swelling can be a result of cancer.

In mild cases of neck swelling, treatment may not be required. If the neck swelling is bothersome, over-the-counter medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs or pain medications or cold compresses may help reduce discomfort and swelling. In more serious cases, a visit to a medical professional may be necessary to determine the cause of neck swelling and appropriate treatment.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your symptoms of neck swelling, or those of someone you are with, are accompanied by sudden swelling of the face, lips, or tongue, or breathing problems such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking. These symptoms may be signs of a severe allergic reaction. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, develop a high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit) and have difficulty swallowing, as your neck swelling may be related to mumps, a serious viral disease, or another serious infection.

If your neck swelling is painful, persistent, or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with neck swelling?

Neck swelling may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Skin symptoms that may occur along with neck swelling

Neck swelling may accompany other symptoms affecting the skin including:

  • Bleeding or bruising
     
  • Dry, itchy or oily skin
     
  • Rash
     
  • Red or pink bumps
     
  • Redness or warmth

Other symptoms that may occur along with neck swelling

Neck swelling may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Difficulty chewing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Pain with swallowing or movement of the neck
  • Raised lumps under the skin of the neck

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, neck swelling may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
     
  • Painful, stiff neck with swollen lymph nodes (may be a sign of a serious infection)
     
  • Respiratory or breathing problems such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking
     
  • Sudden, painful neck swelling

What causes neck swelling?

Neck swelling can arise from infection of the skin or other structures, which can lead to fluid accumulation, inflammation, swelling, or swollen lymph nodes of the neck. Swelling may also occur as a result of a recent neck injury or surgery.

In serious cases, neck swelling may be due to mumps (a viral infection of the salivary glands in the neck), or a serious allergic reaction. In these cases, prompt medical attention may be necessary.

Skin causes of neck swelling

Neck swelling may be caused by a variety of skin conditions including:

  • Acne
     
  • Benign growths
     
  • Boils
     
  • Cyst (a benign sac that contains fluid, air, or other materials)
     
  • Lipoma (benign fatty growth)
     
  • Skin infection

Other causes of neck swelling

Neck swelling can also be caused by a variety of other conditions including:

  • General infection leading to swollen lymph nodes
  • Goiter (an enlarged thyroid gland)
  • Hereditary angioedema (a serious genetic disorder that causes periodic swelling of the throat and other areas)
  • Mumps (viral infection of the salivary glands in the neck)
  • Side effects to medication such as antibiotics or angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors
  • Thyroid gland enlargement (goiter)

Serious or life-threatening causes of neck swelling

In some cases, neck swelling may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)
     
  • Angioedema (a severe swelling beneath the skin that can cause breathing difficulty)
     
  • Cancer of the throat, soft tissues, thyroid gland, or other structures

Questions for diagnosing the cause of neck swelling

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your neck swelling including:

  • How long has your neck been swollen?
     
  • Do you have any allergies?
     
  • Do you have any other symptoms of infection?
     
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
     
  • Have you had a recent surgery or injury?
     
  • Is the swelling painful?
     
  • Is your neck stiff?
     
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of neck swelling?

Generally, neck swelling is not serious and can be treated with over-the-counter medications and home remedies. In serious cases, neck swelling may be related to an underlying infection or to an injury that requires medical care. Because neck swelling can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Pain that does not respond to treatment (intractable pain)
  • Severe breathing problems
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
  • Thyroid dysfunction
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 8
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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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  2. Facial swelling. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/facial-swelling.html.
  3. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.