Learn more about swollen lymph nodes, including possible causes and treatments your doctor may recommend.
Swollen lymph nodes usually occur as a result of infection from bacteria or viruses. Rarely, swollen lymph nodes are caused by cancer.
Your lymph nodes, also called lymph glands, play a vital role in your body's ability to fight off infections. They function as filters, trapping viruses, bacteria and other causes of illnesses before they can infect other parts of your body. Common areas where you might notice swollen lymph nodes include your neck, under your chin, in your armpits and in your groin.
In some cases, the passage of time and warm compresses may be all you need to treat swollen lymph nodes. If an infection causes swollen lymph nodes, treatment depends on the cause.
One of the most common places to find swollen lymph nodes is in the neck. The inset shows three swollen lymph nodes below the lower jaw.
Your lymphatic system is a network of organs, vessels and lymph nodes situated throughout your body. Many lymph nodes are located in your head and neck region. Lymph nodes that frequently swell are in this area, as well as in your armpits and groin area.
Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that something is wrong somewhere in your body. When your lymph nodes first swell, you might notice:
Depending on the cause of your swollen lymph nodes, other signs and symptoms you might have include:
Some swollen lymph nodes return to normal when the underlying condition, such as a minor infection, gets better. See your doctor if you're concerned or if your swollen lymph nodes:
Seek immediate medical care if you're having difficulty swallowing or breathing.
Lymph nodes are small, round or bean-shaped clusters of cells. Inside lymph nodes are a combination of different types of immune system cells. These specialized cells filter your lymphatic fluid as it travels through your body and protect you by destroying invaders.
Lymph nodes are located in groups, and each group drains a specific area of your body. You may be more likely to notice swelling in certain areas, such as in the lymph nodes in your neck, under your chin, in your armpits and in your groin. The site of the swollen lymph nodes may help identify the underlying cause.
The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes is an infection, particularly a viral infection, such as the common cold. Other possible causes of swollen lymph nodes include:
Other possible but rare causes include certain medications, such as the anti-seizure medication phenytoin (Dilantin) and preventive medications for malaria.
The lymphatic system is part of the body's immune system, which protects against infection and disease. The lymphatic system includes the spleen, thymus, lymph nodes and lymph channels, as well as the tonsils and adenoids.
If infection is the cause of your swollen lymph nodes and isn't treated, an abscess may form. Abscesses are localized collections of pus caused by infections. Pus contains fluid, white blood cells, dead tissue, and bacteria or other invaders. An abscess may require drainage and antibiotic treatment.
To diagnose what might be causing your swollen lymph nodes, your doctor may need:
Swollen lymph nodes caused by a virus usually return to normal after the viral infection resolves. Antibiotics are not useful to treat viral infections. Treatment for swollen lymph nodes from other causes depends on the cause:
If your swollen lymph nodes are tender or painful, you might get some relief by doing the following:
If you have swollen lymph nodes, you're likely to start by first seeing your family doctor. When you call to set up your appointment, you may be urged to seek immediate medical care if you're experiencing severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing or swallowing.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
For swollen lymph nodes, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
While you wait for your appointment, if your swollen nodes are painful, try easing your discomfort by using warm compresses and an OTC pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).