Swollen Neck Lymph Nodes

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

Swollen neck lymph nodes are enlarged lymph nodes in the neck area and under the chin. Lymph nodes are very small clusters of immune cells that function as part of the body’s immune system. There are more than 600 lymph nodes throughout the body, but 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 neck lymph nodes can occur in any age group or population, but generally occur most often in children.

Your body relies on the lymphatic system to fight off germs, infections, and abnormal substances such as cancer cells. Lymph nodes are an important part of your body’s immune system. Swollen neck lymph nodes can result from infection, malignancy and autoimmune disorders. Swollen neck lymph nodes are also known as lymphadenitis, lymphadenopathy, swollen nodes, or swollen glands.

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck can be a sign of an infectious disease, such as the common cold, mumps, rubella, strep throat, ear infection, or mononucleosis, as well as an infected wound. Swollen neck lymph nodes can also indicate certain types of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma or Hodgkin’s disease (Hodgkin lymphoma).

Swollen neck 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 neck lymph nodes?

Swollen neck 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 neck lymph nodes

Swollen neck lymph nodes may occur with other symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, swollen neck 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 neck lymph nodes?

The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes in the neck is a viral infection such as the common cold. Bacterial infections that can cause swollen neck lymph nodes include an infected tooth and strep throat. Immune system disorders and some types of cancer can also lead to swollen neck lymph nodes.

Common infectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

The more common infectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes include viral and bacterial infections. Left untreated, some of these diseases can lead to serious complications and secondary illnesses. Infections that commonly cause swollen neck lymph nodes include:

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)

  • Ear infection

  • Infected tooth (abscessed tooth)

  • Influenza (flu)

  • Measles (contagious viral infection also known as rubeola)

  • German measles (contagious viral infection also known as rubella)

  • Mononucleosis (viral infection)

  • Mumps (viral infection that affects the salivary glands in the neck)

  • Strep throat (bacterial throat infection)

  • Tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils in the back of the throat)

Other infectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

Less common, but potentially life-threatening infectious diseases that cause swollen neck 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)

  • Infected wound

  • Syphilis (sexually transmitted disease caused by bacteria)

  • Toxoplasmosis (parasitic infection)

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

Other noninfectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

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

Autoimmune diseases that cause swollen neck lymph nodes

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

  • Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

Cancers that can cause swollen neck lymph nodes

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

  • Hodgkin lymphoma (Hodgkin’s disease)

  • Leukemia

  • Metastasized cancer that has traveled to the lymph nodes

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

  • Oral, mouth or larynx cancer

What are the potential complications of swollen neck lymph nodes?

Viral infections that cause swollen neck lymph nodes can often be treated with self-care measures at home and the swelling will go away as your body fights off the infection. Self-care measures include rest, drinking plenty 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 are symptoms of a possible bacterial infection. Bacterial infections will need to be treated with antibiotics and a treatment plan designed by your doctor. Left untreated, a localized bacterial infection can spread to the blood and quickly become life threatening. In addition, untreated or poorly controlled lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers can spread and lead to loss of life.

Over time, untreated and/or undiagnosed swollen neck 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: 2020 Dec 13
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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.
  1. Swollen lymph nodes. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003097.htm
  2. Understanding Microbes in Sickness and in Health. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/microbes/documents/microbesbook.pdf
  3. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/non-hodgkin