What does it mean when I have swollen lymph nodes in my neck?

The lymph system is a key part of the immune system. Lymph fluid consists of infection-fighting immune cells and clear-to-white fluid that drains from tissues throughout the body.

The lymph nodes trap viruses and bacteria in the lymph fluid as it travels through the body. The lymph nodes also trap the immune cells, because the nodes are where the immune cells do most of their work. This is why, if you’re fighting an infection, your lymph nodes might swell up.

There are hundreds of lymph nodes in the body, including in the armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin. But people most often notice swollen lymph nodes in the neck because it’s an area they touch often. Also, lymph nodes in the neck are closer to the surface of the skin than most lymph nodes in the body.

If you notice swollen or painful lymph nodes in your neck, it is usually not a cause for concern. It just means your immune system is doing its job. But in very rare cases, swollen lymph nodes in the neck can signal a serious problem.

What Do Swollen Lymph Nodes in the Neck Feel Like?

You usually can’t feel the glands in your neck. But when they’re swollen, you will feel one or more lumps. The lump may feel like the size of a pea — or bigger.

You may even be able to see a swollen lymph node. Rarely, you may also notice redness as well.

In the neck, there are lymph nodes just under the jawbone, and in the back of the neck. Usually, the swollen lymph nodes move when pushed. Swollen neck glands may or may not feel painful or tender.

People may also notice swollen glands in the armpit or groin, at the spot where the thigh meets the tummy.

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Reasons for Swollen or Painful Lymph Nodes in the Neck

The most common reasons your lymph nodes swell are:

  • A viral infection.
  • A bacterial infection.

For example, when you have cold symptoms, you may notice swollen glands in your neck. (Cold symptoms are most often due to a virus.)

Less common causes of swollen glands include:

  • Autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks healthy cells, leading to swelling from extra immune cells. (There are many different types of autoimmune disease, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.)
  • Medication side effects. Several types of medications can cause swollen glands, including certain antibiotics, seizure medications, and heart medications.
  • Certain types of cancer, including leukemia, Hodgkin disease, or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Parasites, like round worms.
  • Fungi.
  • Diseases carried by insects.

What You Should Do About Swollen Lymph Nodes

If a common cold or other run-of-the-mill infection explains your swollen lymph nodes, you don’t need to worry. They will go away on their own in a few days to a few weeks. After your immune cells destroy the virus or bacteria, the immune cells will move out of the node and the swelling will go down.

But you could have a more serious medical issue that requires treatment if your swollen lymph nodes are:

  • Persistent. (They don’t go away after a few weeks.)
  • Noticeably swollen throughout the body, not just in the neck.
  • Visibly red.
  • Hard, or won’t move at all when pushing them.
  • Especially large, about half an inch or larger.

You should also see your doctor if you have swollen lymph nodes along with other worrying symptoms. These include:

  • A fever doesn’t resolve within a few days.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • A change in your heart rate.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Night sweats.
  • Any symptom that seems different from a common infection.

How Your Doctor Will Assess Your Swollen Lymph Nodes

If you have swollen lymph nodes, your doctor may feel the swollen lymph nodes with their hands. The doctor will likely check your heart rate and blood pressure. They may also look at your eyes, throat, and ears for signs of infection.

Your doctor will ask how long you’ve had swollen glands. They may also ask if the problem began around the time of a cold, flu, or other infection.

If your doctor is concerned about your swollen glands, they may suggest:

  • Bloodwork to test for certain viruses, like HIV, or signs of other medical conditions, like cancers.
  • A urine test or throat swab to test for a possible infection.
  • Tests to look for sexually transmitted infections, such as a swab of vaginal discharge.
  • An imaging test, like a CT scan or chest X-ray, to look for tumors.
  • A biopsy, where the doctor extracts a tiny sample of the lymph node through a needle for testing.

Sometimes, doctors will begin with bloodwork. Then, based on the results, they may recommend a more involved test, like a CT scan.

Treatment of Swollen Lymph Nodes

Your doctor may decide to just watch the situation and wait. This means the doctor will advise you to monitor the swollen lymph node, or nodes, for a certain time period. They will ask you to book a follow-up appointment if the swollen lymph node doesn’t go away.

If testing explains the reason for the swollen neck glands, the treatment will depend on the reason. For example, doctors use antiviral drugs to treat viruses and antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.

Doctors will create a treatment plan for more rare causes of swollen lymph nodes, like cancer or an autoimmune disease.

Treating Swollen Lymph Nodes at Home

If you don’t have any of the signs that a doctor should assess your lymph nodes mentioned above, you can get better at home.

If you have a painful lymph node, over-the-counter pain relieving medications, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can reduce the pain. You can also try run a washcloth under warm water, wring it out, and press it on the area. The heat can help bring down pain.

In most cases, the best treatment for swollen lymph nodes in the neck is rest and fluids. This will support your immune system as it works to attack germs in the body.

Dr. James Douketis. Swollen Lymph Nodes. Merck Manual. Link

Dr. Ruby Maini and Dr. Shivaraj Nagalli. Lymphadenopathy. StatPearls. Link

National Cancer Institute. Lymph Nodes. Link

National Institutes of Health. Swollen lymph nodes. Link

National Institutes of Health. Lymph system. Link

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