Finding a lump in your neck can be scary and stressful. But some causes of neck lumps are more serious than others.
Learn what you need to know about what may cause this symptom, when to worry, and how your doctor may treat a suspicious lump in your neck.
Any type of enlarged bump or unusual swelling in your neck area can be considered a neck lump. It could be inflamed lymph nodes, swollen salivary glands, an injured muscle, a cyst, or a tumor.
If you feel a lump or thickening in your neck that you haven’t noticed before, you may have developed a neck lump.
A viral or bacterial infection is a less serious cause of a neck lump. Infections like strep throat or mononucleosis can cause the lymph nodes in your neck to swell. This enlargement often causes a visible bump in your neck that you can see and feel.
You might also get a neck lump after a head or neck injury, from a cyst, or from swelling in your thyroid gland.
A more serious possible cause of a neck lump is head or neck cancer. The American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO) notes that most head and neck cancer is caused by smoking, and is thus preventable.
If you notice that the glands under your jaw are swollen, other symptoms may give you a clue as to what’s causing it. For example, a neck lump caused by an infection may be accompanied by other cold or flu symptoms, and often will go away within two weeks.
There are specific additional symptoms of head or neck cancer. These may include:
- voice or skin changes
- swelling in your mouth
- bleeding in your mouth
- trouble swallowing
- ear pain
Any neck lump that lingers for over two weeks is cause for concern and needs medical attention. The majority of neck lumps are not caused by cancer, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, one or more swellings in your neck can be an early sign of several types of mouth or throat cancer.
The AAO states that heavy tobacco or alcohol use cause up to 90 percent of both head and neck cancers. And the NIH notes that you’re more likely to develop neck cancer as you age. Before you jump to any conclusions, consider whether you have any of the risk factors for neck cancer.
In order to determine why you have a neck lump, your doctor will need to ask you some questions. Be prepared to tell your doctor:
- where you feel the lump
- whether it’s hard or soft
- is it painful to touch
- if it has grown larger or smaller over time
- other symptoms you’ve noticed
Your doctor will also likely give you a physical exam to help answer these questions.
Depending on what your doctor determines is the cause of the lump, your lump may be treated with:
- medication (antibiotics in the case of a bacterial infection)
- surgery (if you have a thyroid goiter or cyst)
- CT or thyroid scan
- thyroid biopsy
Your doctor will be able to effectively treat most neck lumps—particularly if treatment begins quickly. Early treatment can help reduce future complications and stop infections from spreading further.
Neck lumps caused by cancer or a serious viral infection can cause more lasting effects. Be sure to take a neck lump seriously and talk to your doctor if you’re worried. At the very least, you’ll be relieved to hear that it’s nothing. In the worst case, tackling the problem head-on will give you a better chance of beating it.