What is adenopathy?

Adenopathy is a word used for swelling of the glands, which release chemicals like sweat, tears, and hormones. Adenopathy typically refers to swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy).

Lymph nodes aren’t technically glands, because they don’t produce and release chemicals. However, people often refer to lymphadenopathy as “swollen glands.”

You have about 600 of these small, bean-shaped lymph nodes spread around your body. They exist as part of a network that carries a fluid known as lymph. As part of your immune system, lymph nodes play an important role in keeping you healthy. Fluids from your body tissues filter through them. Their main job is to help your body get rid of viruses and bacteria, and to provide white blood cells. These help your body fight off infection and disease.

Most of the time, lymph nodes swell because your body is fighting an infection from a virus or bacteria. The nodes fill up with immune cells, viruses or bacteria, and fluid — making them bigger than usual. Rarely, swollen lymph nodes can be caused by other, more serious diseases.

Keep reading to learn more about what the symptoms are, how adenopathy is diagnosed, and more.

What do swollen lymph nodes look like?

How to identify swollen lymph nodes

Of your hundreds of lymph nodes, you can only feel some of them. Groups of nodes near the skin can be felt in your neck, armpits, back of your head, belly, and groin. You can feel and sometimes even see these nodes when they enlarge.

When this happens, you may notice the following:

  • pea- or bean-sized lumps under the skin
  • tenderness or soreness when you touch them
  • redness and warmth of the skin over the swollen nodes

Other symptoms to watch for

If your lymph nodes are swollen, you may also experience symptoms of an infection.

This includes:

  • runny nose
  • sore throat
  • earache
  • fever
  • tiredness

Once the infection clears up, your lymph nodes should go back to normal.

Call your doctor right away if you have difficulty swallowing or breathing.

You should also make an appointment with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • swollen lymph nodes throughout your body, such as on the neck, groin, and armpits
  • nodes that are swollen for more than two weeks
  • hard or rubbery nodes that don’t move around when you push on them
  • nodes that grow quickly
  • weight loss
  • night sweats or long-lasting fever

What causes adenopathy?

The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes is a viral infection like the common cold or flu. Another common cause is a bacterial infection like strep throat. More rarely, lymph nodes can swell because of injury, other diseases, or cancer. The following are common causes of swollen lymph nodes, but there are many other potential causes that your doctor can identify.

Infectious causes

Most cases of swollen lymph nodes are caused by viruses or bacteria. A lot of times, the nodes that swell will be close to the infection. For example, the nodes in your neck will swell when you have a throat infection.

Some of the many infections that may cause your nodes to swell include:

Non-infectious causes

You may develop lymphadenopathy from other causes as well, ranging from injury to autoimmune diseases.

Possibilities include:

  • Injury: As your body works to heal a wound and prevent an infection from taking hold, your nodes near the injury may swell.
  • Certain medications: Phenytoin (Dilantin) and malaria prevention medications are two examples of drugs that can cause swollen lymph nodes.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This autoimmune disease causes inflammation in your joints and sometimes other organs.
  • Lupus: This autoimmune disease causes inflammation in your organs, skin, and joints.
  • Sarcoidosis: This disease causes groups of inflammatory cells (granulomas) to grow in different parts of your body. The lungs are frequently involved.

Is it cancerous?

Swollen lymph nodes can occasionally be caused by cancer — but lymphadenopathy is much more likely to be caused by an infection.

In rare instances, swollen lymph nodes may be a sign of:

  • Lymphoma: This is a type of cancer that starts in the lymph system or in a lymph node.
  • Leukemia: This is a cancer of your blood and bone marrow, which can also affect your lymph system.

More often, a cancer starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to your lymph nodes.

If you have any of the following symptoms along with swollen lymph nodes, see your doctor right away:

  • weight loss
  • easy bleeding and bruising
  • fever or fatigue that lasts for weeks
  • night sweats

No matter the suspected cause of your swollen lymph nodes, they are a sign that something is wrong in your body. It’s often just a mild infection, but if the swelling doesn’t go down or if you have other concerning symptoms, always see your doctor.

Learn more about the possible causes »

How is adenopathy diagnosed?

Swollen lymph nodes aren’t a disease. They’re a symptom of some underlying condition.

Your doctor will first want to figure out if your lymphadenopathy is affecting only one area of your body (localized) or affecting two or more areas of the body (generalized).

If nodes throughout your body are swollen, your doctor will suspect a more serious disease that affects your whole body.

To help figure out the root cause of your swollen nodes, your doctor will do some or all the following, depending on what is needed for you:

  • Ask questions. Your doctor will want to know how long your nodes have been swollen, any other symptoms you have, when your symptoms started, and what medications you take.
  • Perform an exam. Your doctor will feel the lymph nodes near the surface of your skin to check for size, whether they cause you pain, and if they feel warm. The location, size, and texture of swollen nodes give the doctor clues about possible causes.
  • Order blood tests. Depending on what your doctor thinks may be causing your swollen lymph nodes, blood tests may be used to confirm or rule out suspected underlying conditions.
  • Order images. X-rays or CT scans may be used to help find sources of infection or look for tumors.
  • Take a biopsy. Your doctor may remove a sample of the lymph node through a needle or by removing the whole thing. The sample will be examined under a microscope.

Treatment options

Your doctor won’t treat your swollen lymph nodes directly. They’ll treat the underlying condition causing the swelling.

But if your swollen nodes are painful, here are some tips to bring relief:

  • Bring the warmth. Put a warm compress, such as a warm washcloth or heating pad set to low, on the affected area.
  • Use cool packs. Sometimes warmth can irritate already sensitive skin or sore body parts. Cool packs may help ease inflammation if a warm compress isn’t effective.
  • Take a pain reliever. Over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can ease your discomfort.
  • Rest up. Resting can help you recover from your underlying illness.

If your swollen lymph nodes were brought on by a viral infection, your doctor probably will not prescribe any medication. Antibiotics don’t work on viruses. For certain viruses, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug.

Bacterial infections are usually treated with antibiotics.

Serious body-wide infections, inflammatory diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer will require special treatment plans. Your doctor will work with you on that treatment plan or will send you to a specialist.

Outlook

Your outlook will vary depending on the cause of your swollen nodes. If your adenopathy is the result of a minor infection, your lymph nodes will go back to normal soon after the infection clears. If your adenopathy is caused by a more serious condition, your doctor will work with you on a treatment plan.