Swollen Lymph Nodes

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are swollen lymph nodes?

Swollen lymph nodes are enlarged lymph nodes, which normally are bean-sized packets of immune cells that function as a vital part of the body’s immune system. Swollen lymph nodes symptoms can also include tenderness, firmness and warmth. Lymphadenitis, lymphadenopathy, swollen nodes, and swollen glands are other names for having swollen lymph nodes.

There are more than 600 lymph nodes throughout the body. Swollen lymph nodes in the neck/one side of the neck, under the chin, in the armpits, and in the groin generate symptoms most frequently because of their superficial location. They can occur in any age group or population, but generally occur most often in children.

Your body relies on the lymphoid system to fight off germs, infections, and abnormal substances, such as cancer cells. These microscopic battles often occur within lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are an important part of your body’s immune system. Common swollen lymph nodes causes include infection, malignancy and autoimmune disorders. Vaccination can also cause swollen lymph nodes as your body builds immunity to the vaccine.

Swollen lymph nodes due to a viral infection often get better without treatment. However, some infections that are due to bacteria or other pathogens need medical attention.

Seek prompt medical care if your lymph nodes have been swollen for more than two weeks, or are red, tender, hard, or irregular feeling, or if swelling is increasing.

What other symptoms might occur with swollen lymph nodes?

Swollen lymph nodes often occur with other symptoms that vary in severity depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Symptoms that may occur along with swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes may occur with other symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, swollen lymph nodes may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or 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 symptoms:

What causes swollen lymph nodes?

The most common causes of swollen lymph nodes are viral infections, such as the common cold, and bacterial infections, such as strep throat. Immune system disorders and some types of cancer can also lead to swollen lymph nodes.

Common infectious causes of swollen lymph nodes

The more common infectious causes of swollen lymph nodes include viral and bacterial infections. Some of these conditions caused by bacteria are associated with serious and potentially life-threatening complications if they are not treated with antibiotics. Infectious causes include:

Other infectious causes of swollen lymph nodes

Less common, but potentially life-threatening infectious diseases that cause swollen lymph nodes include:

  • AIDS (caused by HIV infection)

  • Cat scratch fever (bacterial infection from being scratched or bitten by a cat that carries the bacteria)

  • Cellulitis (bacterial skin infection)

  • Syphilis (sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria)

  • Toxoplasmosis (parasitic infection)

  • Tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs)

Other noninfectious causes of swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes can also be caused by noninfectious disorders such as:

Vaccination can cause swollen lymph nodes too. You don’t have an infection, but your immune system reacts as if you are because the vaccine is foreign material. The swelling will go down within a few weeks.

Autoimmune diseases that can cause swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes can also be caused by problems with the immune system itself, such as:

Cancers that can cause swollen lymph nodes

The most notable life-threatening diseases that cause swollen lymph nodes are different types of cancers including:

  • Leukemia

  • Lymphoma, both Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma

  • Melanoma

  • Metastasized cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes

  • Oral, mouth or larynx cancer

When should you see a doctor for swollen lymph nodes?

In most cases, swollen lymph nodes are part of the body’s normal reaction to a viral infection. The problem will resolve on its own once the infection is under control. However, there are times when seeing a doctor is the safest option to diagnose potentially serious causes.

See a doctor promptly when:

  • Swollen lymph nodes persist or continue to enlarge over 2 to 4 weeks.

  • Swollen lymph nodes feel hard and you cannot move them. Normally, they will give a little when you push on them.

  • You have other symptoms, including persistent fever, night sweats, fatigue, or unexplained weight loss.

  • You have swollen lymph nodes for no obvious reason, such as a viral infection.

  • Your skin around a swollen lymph node is red, inflamed or tender. 

Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for swollen lymph nodes when:

  • You have difficulty breathing or swallowing.

  • You have a fever higher than 101°F.

  • You are vomiting blood or coffee ground-like material.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of swollen lymph nodes?

To diagnose the cause of swollen lymph nodes, your doctor will perform a physical exam. Your doctor will feel for lymph nodes near the skin in various body areas. The size, texture and warmth of them will be important. Your doctor will also want to know if they are tender.

There are several questions related to your swollen lymph nodes that your doctor may ask including:

  • How long have your lymph nodes been swollen?

  • Did the swelling start suddenly or gradually over time?

  • Have they stayed the same size or gotten larger with time?

  • Are your lymph nodes painful or tender?

  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as fever, night sweats, sore throat, or weight loss?

  • Have you recently traveled outside the country or spent time outdoors in tick areas?

  • Have you been bitten or scratched by an animal?

  • Are you sexually active? Do you practice safe sex?

  • Do you smoke?

  • Did you get vaccinated recently?

  • Are your vaccinations up to date?

Based on your answers and exam, your doctor may need to order tests including:

  • Blood tests, including a complete blood count and liver and kidney function tests

  • Imaging exams, a chest X-ray and CT (computerized tomography) scan

  • Lymph node biopsy to take a tissue sample or the entire lymph node for microscopic analysis

It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.

How do you treat swollen lymph nodes?

Viral infections that cause swollen lymph nodes can often be treated with home care. The swelling will go away as your body fights off the infection. Self-care measures include rest, drinking lots of fluids, warm compresses, and over-the-counter pain relievers.

For persistent or chronic swelling, redness and pain, it is important to seek medical care because these can be symptoms of something more serious. Treatment of these other causes depend on the underlying condition:

  • Bacterial infections will need treatment with antibiotics.
  • Cancer treatment options may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and surgery.
  • HIV infection requires antiviral therapy.
  • Immune and autoimmune disorders will need treatment specific to the condition, such as biologics, immunosuppressants, and disease-modifying drugs. 

Swollen lymph nodes home remedies 

If you are dealing with swollen lymph nodes, there are some things you can do to improve your comfort. These home remedies include:

  • Apply heat therapy, including a heating pad or warm compress

  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated

  • Rest to give your body time to fight the infection or heal

  • Take over-the-counter relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)

As your body fights an infection, the soreness will probably resolve first. It can take some time for lymph nodes to return to their normal size as they clean up after an infection. See your doctor if they remain enlarged after 2 to 4 weeks.

What are the potential complications of swollen lymph nodes?

Left untreated, a localized bacterial infection can spread to the blood and vital organs and quickly become life-threatening. In addition, untreated or poorly controlled lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers can spread and result in loss of life.

Over time, swollen lymph nodes can lead to serious complications including:

  • Formation of an abscess

  • Rheumatic fever (inflammatory disease that can develop as a complication of strep throat)

  • Scarlet fever (rash caused by strep infections)

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection to the blood (septicemia or bacteremia)

  • Toxic shock syndrome
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 19
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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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