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.
Causes of swollen lymph nodes
The most common cause of lymph node swelling in your neck is an upper respiratory infection, which can take 10 to 14 days to resolve completely. As soon as you start feeling better, the swelling should go down as well, though it may take a few weeks longer to go away completely.
Other bacteria and viruses that may cause your lymph nodes to become swollen include:
- Cold and flu.
- Sinus infections.
- Strep throat.
- Skin wounds.
Your lymph nodes get larger when more blood cells come to fight off an invading infection. They all essentially pile in, causing pressure and swelling.
Often, the lymph nodes that swell will be close to the infection’s site. (That means a person with strep throat might develop swollen lymph nodes in their neck.)
Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes
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:
- Tenderness and pain in the lymph nodes
- Swelling that may be the size of a pea or kidney bean, or even larger in the lymph nodes
Depending on the cause of your swollen lymph nodes, other signs and symptoms you might have include:
- Runny nose, sore throat, fever, and other indications of an upper respiratory infection
- General swelling of lymph nodes throughout your body. When this occurs, it may indicate an infection, such as HIV or mononucleosis, or an immune system disorder, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
- Hard, fixed, rapidly growing nodes, indicating possible cancer or lymphoma
- Night sweats
- When to see a doctor
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:
- Have appeared for no apparent reason
- Continue to enlarge or have been present for two to four weeks
- Feel hard or rubbery, or don’t move when you push on them
- Are accompanied by persistent fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss
Seek immediate medical care if you’re having difficulty swallowing or breathing.