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Swollen Lymph Nodes


Disease: Swollen Lymph Nodes Swollen Lymph Nodes
Category: Infectious diseases
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Disease Definition:

One of the most common reasons that people, especially children, visit a doctor for  is swollen lymph nodes and the signs and symptoms that accompany this condition.

Many things can cause the lymph nodes to become swollen, but infection is usually the most common cause. The glands that play an essential role in helping the body fight off bacteria, viruses and other things that may cause illnesses are the lymph nodes.  

The cause of lymphadenitis (swollen lymph nodes) will determine the type of treatment. In some serious cases, treating the underlying cause of swollen lymph nodes may eliminate the problem, while in not so serious cases, using nonprescription pain relievers and warm compresses along with the passage of time, may be all that is needed.

Work Group:

Prepared by: Scientific Section

Symptoms, Causes


A network of organs, vessels and lymph nodes located throughout the body make up the lymphatic system. The majority of lymph nodes, which are 600 in whole, are found in the head and neck region. The lymph nodes located in the area mentioned above, as well as those in the armpits and groin areas are the ones that usually become swollen.

Based on the cause of the swollen lymph nodes, a person may experience some of these signs and symptoms:

-    Tender and painful lymph nodes
-    Red and inflamed skin over the swollen lymph node
-    Enlargement of the affected lymph nodes to 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) or more
-    General swelling of lymph nodes throughout the body, which may suggest an immune disorder, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus; or an infection, such as mononucleosis or HIV.
-    Hardened, fixed and rapidly growing nodes, which may indicate the presence of a tumor. However, this is quite rare.
-    Indications of an upper respiratory infection, such as sore throat, fever and runny nose.
-    Swollen limb, which may suggest the blockage of the lymph system, due to swelling in a lymph node that is too far under the skin to be felt.  

Usually, when the underlying condition resolves, such as a cold, the swelling of the lymph nodes fades away. However, a person should see a doctor in case his/her swollen lymph nodes:

-    Are red, warm and tender
-    Feel hard or fixed
-    Have appeared without an apparent reason
-    Are accompanied by fever, unexplained weight loss or night sweats
-    Occur along with a sore throat or difficulty breathing or swallowing
-    Continue to enlarge, or have been present for more than two weeks


The small, round or bean-shaped clusters of cells that are covered by a capsule of connective tissue are known as lymph nodes. These cells are made up of a combination of lymphocytes, which produce protein particles that capture invaders, such as viruses; and macrophages that break down the material that has been captured. As the lymphatic fluid travels through the body to protect it by destroying invaders, it becomes filtered by the lymphocytes and macrophages.

The location of the swollen lymph nodes may help in determining the underlying cause. The lymph nodes located in the groin, armpits, under the chin and in the neck are the ones that usually become swollen.

An infection, usually a viral one, such as the common cold, is the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes.

Some of the other parasitic, bacterial or other causes of swollen lymph nodes may be:

Common infections:
-    Measles
-    Wound infections
-    Strep throat
-    Ear infections
-    Mononucleosis
-    Mumps
-    Infected or abscessed tooth

Other infections:
-    Cat scratch fever, which is a bacterial infection from a cat bite or scratch
-    Syphilis or certain other STDs (sexually transmitted diseases)
-    Toxoplasmosis, which is a parasitic infection caused by eating undercooked meat, or coming into contact with the feces of an infected cat
-    Tuberculosis

Immune system disorders:
-    The chronic inflammatory disease that affects the tissue lining the joints (synovium), known as rheumatoid arthritis
-    The chronic inflammatory disease that can affect the blood cells, kidneys, heart, lungs, skin and joints, known as lupus
-    The virus that causes AIDS, namely, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

-    Leukemia, which is the cancer of the body's blood-forming tissue, including the lymphatic system and the bone marrow
-    Lymphoma, which is the cancer that begins in the lymphatic system
-    Other cancers that have metastasized (spread) to the lymph nodes

Additionally, certain immunizations, such as for malaria and certain medications used to prevent seizures, such as phenytoin (Dilantin), may cause swollen lymph nodes in some rare cases.



An untreated infection, which has resulted in swollen lymph nodes, may cause the following complications:

Bacteremia (bloodstream infection):
An overwhelming infection of the bloodstream may cause an infection anywhere in the body to progress to sepsis, resulting in organ failure and death. Hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics are involved in the treatment of sepsis.

Abscess formation:
An infection may cause an abscess, which is a localized collection of pus that contains dead tissue, fluid, white blood cells and bacteria or other invaders. When an abscess affects a vital organ, it may cause significant damage. Antibiotic treatment and drainage are usually needed to treat an abscess.


When the viral infection that has caused the lymph nodes to become swollen heals, the nodes may return to normal. Additionally, viral infections can't be treated with antibiotics. The condition that caused swollen lymph nodes will also determine the treatment:

In case cancer is the cause of swollen lymph nodes, the cancer should be treated, which may involve undergoing surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, depending on the type of the cancer.

When swollen lymph nodes are caused by a bacterial infection, it is usually treated with antibiotics. Some of the over-the-counter medications that could be used include acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), ibuprofen and acetaminophen, which reduce inflammation and fever, as well as relieve pain. However, because aspirin has been associated with Reye's syndrome, which is a serious condition that affects the brains, livers and blood of children and teenagers who are recovering from a viral infection, they shouldn't take it without the doctor's approval.

Immune disorder:
The treatment of swollen lymph nodes should be aimed at the underlying condition in case it is the result of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or HIV.


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