Swollen Lymph Nodes from HIV

Medically reviewed by Tim Legg PhD, PMHNP-BC, GNP-BC, CARN-AP, MCHES on June 16, 2016Written by Kristeen Cherney on September 26, 2014

First symptoms of HIV

Soon after exposure to HIV you may start having the symptoms of infection. Many of the first symptoms of HIV are similar to the flu. In addition to fever and fatigue, you might experience swollen lymph nodes. Treating the HIV infection is the best way to ease these symptoms, including swollen lymph nodes.

Learn why HIV leads to swollen lymph nodes and find out how you can reduce lymph node inflammation using a few methods you can try at home.

What are lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes are a part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system plays an important role in your body’s immune system. Lymph, a clear fluid that circulates throughout your body, is partly made of white blood cells that attack bacteria.

Lymph nodes are located in certain parts of your body, including your neck, groin, and armpits. They’re shaped like beans and measure no more than 2.5 centimeters long. The lymph nodes are responsible for filtering lymph and producing mature immune cells.

Lymph nodes protect both your blood and immune system by:

  • filtering excess proteins
  • removing extra fluids
  • producing antibodies
  • generating specialized white blood cells
  • getting rid of bacteria and viruses

Swollen lymph nodes may also be the first signs of an HIV infection. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you call your doctor if your swollen lymph nodes last more than two to four weeks.

How HIV affects your lymph nodes

An infection from bacteria and viruses, including HIV, can cause swelling of the lymph nodes. The swelling occurs because the infection reaches the nodes through lymph fluid. You may experience swollen lymph nodes within a few days of HIV infection. However, it’s possible to not experience any other HIV symptoms for up to several years after you were infected.

HIV most often affects lymph nodes around the neck area, as well as in the armpits and groin. Usually, healthy lymph nodes aren’t visible. Once infected, they become swollen and may look like hard bumps about the size of beans. As the infection progresses, you may notice more lymph nodes swelling in your body.

In addition to swollen lymph nodes, you might experience other symptoms of HIV infection, such as:

  • a fever
  • forgetfulness
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss

What are the treatment options?

Treating swollen lymph nodes often comes down to treating the underlying cause. Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections. Most swelling associated with viral infections requires time to heal. However, HIV is different than other types of viruses.

While you may not have any symptoms for months at a time, the virus is continuously present in your blood and other tissues. You must receive treatment for HIV to treat swollen lymph nodes that occur due to the HIV. Antiretroviral treatments reduce symptoms and prevent the spread of HIV.

Home treatments

Other remedies may help soothe swollen lymph nodes. For example, you can use warm compresses along with your medications to make you more comfortable. The heat may reduce pain. Getting plenty of rest may reduce swelling and pain.

Over-the-counter pain relievers may also help. However, you should use these remedies only as complementary treatments and not as replacements. Never rely on these remedies in place of prescribed HIV medications.

Looking beyond treatment

Once you become HIV-positive, you’ll have the virus for the rest of your life. Still, this doesn’t mean you’ll experience swollen lymph nodes all of the time. HIV symptoms tend to fluctuate depending upon the level of virus in your body and the various problems it causes, such as the rate of system-wide destruction of T cells.

Medications for HIV help slow down the rate of immunity destruction. This is why it’s important to stick with your prescriptions, even if you feel better and notice reduced symptoms.

As the virus spreads, your immune system will weaken and you’re more likely to develop other infections. You’re most likely to experience symptoms during these periods of sickness. Untreated HIV is likely to turn into AIDS more quickly than it would if you effectively suppressed HIV replication to undetectable levels over the long term.

Noticeably swollen lymph nodes could indicate that your body is fighting an infection. Call your doctor if your lymph nodes are swollen, even if you’re already on anti-HIV medication.

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