Infections are the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes. Infections that can cause them include:
- Abscessed or impacted tooth
- Ear infection
- Colds, flu, and other infections
- Swelling (inflammation) of gums (gingivitis)
- Mouth sores
- Sexually transmitted illness (STI)
- Skin infections
Immune or autoimmune disorders that can cause swollen lymph nodes are:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Cancers that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:
Certain medicines can cause swollen lymph nodes, including:
- Seizure medicines such as phenytoin
- Typhoid immunization
Which lymph nodes are swollen depends on the cause and the body parts involved. Swollen lymph nodes that appear suddenly and are painful are usually due to injury or infection. Slow, painless swelling may be due to cancer or a tumor.
Common areas where the lymph nodes can be felt (with the fingers) include:
- Neck (there is a chain of lymph nodes on either side of the front of the neck, both sides of the neck, and down each side of the back of the neck)
- Under the jaw and chin
- Behind the ears
- On the back of the head
Lymph nodes are present throughout your body. They are an important part of your immune system. Lymph nodes help your body recognize and fight germs, infections, and other foreign substances.
The term "swollen glands" refers to enlargement of one or more lymph nodes. The medical name for swollen lymph nodes is lymphadenopathy.
In a child, a node is considered enlarged if it is more than 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) wide.
Painful lymph nodes are generally a sign that your body is fighting an infection. The soreness usually goes away in a couple of days, without treatment. The lymph node may not return to its normal size for several weeks.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your provider will perform a physical examination and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Examples of questions that may be asked include:
- When the swelling began
- If the swelling came on suddenly
- Whether any nodes are painful when pressed
The following tests may be done:
- Blood tests, including liver function tests, kidney function tests, and CBC with differential
- Lymph node biopsy
- Chest x-ray
- Liver-spleen scan
Treatment depends on the cause of the swollen nodes.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
- Your lymph nodes do not get smaller after several weeks or they continue to get larger.
- They are red and tender.
- They feel hard, irregular, or fixed in place.
- You have fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss.
- Any node in a child is larger than 1 centimeter (a little less than half inch) in diameter.
Armitage JO, Bierman PJ. Approach to the patient with lymphadenopathy and splenomegaly. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 168.
Tower RL, Camitta BM. Lymphadenopathy. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 490.