Multiple systems in the body work together to keep a person healthy and disease-free. The lymphatic system is one of the most essential parts of the immune system.
It is constructed similarly to the blood circulatory system. Instead of blood, however, this system transports lymphatic fluids through the body1.
Lymph nodes form part of the lymphatic system. These are classified as glands. They are small in size and help to filter lymph. This is another term used to describe the fluids that run through the lymphatic system.
There are lymph nodes in various areas of the human body. When invading microorganisms enter the body, the lymph nodes help to stop them. These nodes also release white blood cells to help fight against the disease.
Lymph nodes sometimes become swollen, which can be worrisome to a patient. There are different reasons why they may become swollen as they respond to various invaders in the body. We look at why lymph nodes swell up. We also consider symptoms and potential treatments.
What are swollen lymph nodes?
Lymph nodes are found in the following regions of the human body:
- In a person’s armpits
- Under a person’s jaw
- On both sides of a person’s neck
- Above a person’s collarbone
- On both sides of the individual’s groin
These glands can sometimes swell up. When lymph nodes swell up, it means some type of invading organism was detected. This is often a response to a bacteria or virus that entered the body. This could be a bacterial infection in the lungs, or viral throat infection, for example.
The reason for lymph node swelling is a collection of certain compounds. This includes debris that is accumulated as the lymphatic fluids are filtered. In addition to debris, bacteria, and viruses, along with other microorganisms, can also accumulate in the lymph nodes. These glands also filter diseases and dead cells from lymphatic fluids.
The combination of these compounds that accumulate in lymph nodes leads to the swelling of the glands.
Lymph nodes close to the area of disease or illness will swell up. For example, a person with a common cold will have an infection in their upper respiratory tract. In such a case, the lymph nodes in the neck may swell up. This is because they are closest to the site of infection.
It is also important to note that lymph nodes do not only swell up in response to an infection. These glands can also swell up in the presence of tumors. They help the body fight against cancer. As these tumor cells die, they collect in the lymph nodes.
Several cells respond to actions from the lymphatic system. T cells and dendritic cells are only two examples. The fluid is transported through lymphatic vessels. These lymph vessels help to carry white blood cells from the lymph node to the area of infection.
Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes
Specifying symptoms related to swollen lymph nodes is not a straightforward factor. This is because there are just so many different reasons for normal lymph nodes to become swollen. One person may have a sexually transmitted infection, while another might suffer from Hodgkin lymphoma.
The swelling of lymph nodes would be considered the primary symptom here. Understanding additional symptoms to look for can give a person an idea of why the lymph nodes are swollen.
Lymph node swelling linked to the common cold, for example, will present with this additional symptoms2:
- A low-grade fever
- A sore throat
- A runny nose
- Nose may also be stuffy
- A mild headache
- Mild body aches
There are serious conditions that can cause lymph nodes to swell too. For example, a person with severe strep throat may experience3:
- Sore throat
- Pain when the person swallows
- A fever
- Tonsils are red and inflamed
- Red spots in the throat
When a patient develops a potentially life-threatening disease, the lymph nodes may sometimes swell up. As an example, breast cancer can cause these symptoms4:
- Breast skin may feel irritated.
- A lump may develop in the person’s breast.
- There may be a lump in the armpit too.
- Part of the individual’s breast may become thickened.
- Nipple discharge may occur.
- Flaky skin in the area of the nipple.
- The nipple may pull inward.
- There may be pain around the nipple.
- Skin dimpling can occur on the breast.
These are only a few possibilities of symptoms that may accompany swollen lymph nodes. Patients always need to consider the fact that when infection or disease develops, nearby lymph nodes swell up.
Thus, look for symptoms in a close perimeter to the area where lymph nodes are swollen. This may include irritation, pain, tenderness, and inflammation.
Any accompanying symptoms should be mentioned to a doctor. This allows the healthcare professional to determine what the potential cause may be.
Generally, however, patients are advised to look out for these signs when they have swollen lymph nodes:
- A runny nose
There are cases where lymph nodes swell up with no other symptoms. In such a case, it is still considered essential to consult a healthcare professional.
Causes of swollen lymph nodes
There are many potential causes of lymph node enlargement. Sometimes, the cause may be mild, and the body will take care of it without medical intervention.
In other cases, however, medical care may be needed. This is generally the case when the body cannot fight against foreign substances on its own. It is also critical in cases lie cancer, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, and other diseases that require medical intervention.
When lymph nodes in the neck swell up, the cause may be linked to:
- An infection in the mouth (tooth or gum infection)
- Strep throat
- Skin infection
- A sinus infection
- Infection in the ear
- The common cold
- HIV and AIDS
- Mononucleosis (Often referred to as “mono”)
- Tuberculosis (TB)
- Mouth sores
- Cat scratch fever
- Hodgkin’s disease
Some conditions can cause lymph nodes to swell up in multiple areas. There are even cases where all lymph nodes in the body may swell up. This is often the case with a more severe condition. It may signal a spreading of some conditions too.
Cancer can cause lymph nodes in multiple areas to become inflamed. It should be noted that cancer can sometimes spread to the lymphatic system too. In such a case, lymph nodes may be affected by cancer.
Some immune system disorders cause systematic lymph node swelling. Examples of such conditions would include rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Certain infections that are transmitted through sexual activities cause a reaction in the lymphatic system too. Syphilis is known to cause swelling in the lymph nodes. Gonorrhea is another STD that causes lymph nodes to swell up. In these cases, lymph nodes in the groin area are likely to become swollen.
Apart from disease, it has been found that there are a few drugs that may also cause swelling of lymph nodes. Medications used to treat malaria have been found to induce swelling in lymph nodes. Antiseizure drugs may also have such an effect. When a person has an allergic reaction to the medication, they may also find that their lymph nodes swell up.
A diagnosis from a doctor is important when a patient presents with swollen lymph nodes. The swollen lymph node is not a condition itself. Instead, it is a symptom. It tells the doctor that there are invading pathogens in the patient’s body.
The doctor will start by asking the patient a couple of questions. The patient should provide the doctor with a full overview of the symptoms they experience.
The doctor will need to do a physical examination too. The doctor will feel the area where the lymph nodes are swollen. Other areas were lymph nodes are located will be examined too. This helps the doctor determine if it may be a systematic illness.
A review of the patient’s medical history is important. The doctor will see if the patient has a history of conditions that may cause lymph node swelling. The doctor will also look at the medications used by the patient. This allows them to rule out the possibility of pharmaceutical drugs, causing problems with the lymphatic system.
Apart from these, a few tests may be ordered too. The doctor may request a blood test to be done. This helps the doctor check for certain illnesses.
There are times where additional tests will be needed before a diagnosis can be made. This may include certain imaging tests. The imaging tests ordered could include the following:
- MRI scan
- CT scan
These imaging tests can help the doctor get a better view of the patient’s lymph nodes.
A lymph node biopsy is sometimes ordered if cancer is suspected. This helps the doctor determine if cancer might have spread to the lymph nodes. There are times when a lymph node will be completely removed. This can also assist in the testing procedure.
When a patient has a swollen gland in the lymphatic system, treatment will not always be needed. There are cases where a swollen node becomes smaller on its own. This is generally the case with a viral infection that the body can fight against on its own.
The immune system creates white blood cells. These cells are then sent from the lymph gland to areas of infection. The lymph system helps fight against the infection. The white blood cells are transported to the infection through the lymph channels. The swelling fades once the infection goes away.
In other cases, treatment is needed for swollen lymphoid tissue. The treatment largely depends on the findings made during the diagnosis process. The underlying cause that led to the swelling of lymph nodes needs to be addressed.
If the patient has a bacterial infection, then antibiotics will be provided to them. The antibiotics help to fight against the invading bacteria. Once the bacterial infection clears up, swelling in the lymph nodes fade.
Inflammation and pain may be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs. This may include the use of ibuprofen. Aspirin may also be advised for the patient. This can help in the management of accompanying symptoms while an infection is being fought off.
If the patient has cancer, radiotherapy and chemotherapy will generally be advised. Swelling in the lymph nodes will likely not go away until cancer has been successfully treated.
There are a few home remedies that can help with some causes related to lymph node swelling. It is, however, always important to consider why lymph nodes may be swollen. In some cases, medical treatment is critical to prevent serious complications. Thus, the situation should first be assessed.
If the patient experiences accompanying symptoms that signal the common cold, then home remedies may often work appropriately. This may include drinking a lot of fluids. Getting enough sleep can also help in fighting off the invading viruses.
When the patient has a sore throat, they can gargle some salt water. This also helps to limit the risk of bacterial overgrowth. Drinking warm liquids like tea helps to ease up congestion. Using a humidifier may also help to improve moisture in the air.
Lymph nodes help filter lymphatic fluids and protect the body against bacteria and other illnesses. These glands tend to swell up in response to invading pathogens that enter the lymphatic system.
Swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of the common cold and sometimes also a symptom of something more serious. Patients should understand what accompanying symptoms mean and ensure they get a diagnosis from a healthcare professional. This ensures appropriate treatment can be provided.