Lymph nodes are small, oval-shaped organs that contain immune cells to attack and kill foreign invaders, such as viruses. They’re an important part of the body’s immune system. Lymph nodes are also known as lymph glands.
Lymph nodes are found in various parts of the body, including the neck, armpits, and groin. They’re linked by lymphatic vessels, which carry lymph throughout the body. Lymph is a clear fluid containing white blood cells (WBCs) and dead and diseased tissue for disposal. The primary function of lymph nodes is to harbor the body’s disease-fighting cells and to filter lymph before it reenters circulation.
When you’re sick and your lymph nodes send out disease-fighting cells and compounds, they may become inflamed or painful. The condition of having inflamed lymph nodes is referred to as lymphadenitis.
Lymph node inflammation can occur for a variety of reasons. Any infection or virus, including the common cold, can cause your lymph nodes to swell. Cancer can also cause lymph node inflammation. This includes blood cancer, such as leukemia and lymphoma.
Lymph node inflammation can cause a variety of symptoms. Symptoms depend on the cause of the swelling and the location of the swollen lymph nodes.
Common symptoms accompanying lymph node inflammation include:
- tender, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin
- upper respiratory symptoms, such as a fever, runny nose, or sore throat
- limb swelling, which could indicate lymphatic system blockage
- night sweats
- hardening and expansion of the lymph nodes, which could indicate the presence of a tumor
A doctor typically diagnoses lymph node inflammation through a physical examination. The doctor will feel around the location of various lymph nodes to check for swelling or sensitivity. They may also ask you about any associated symptoms, such as those listed above.
Because a wide range of conditions can cause lymph node inflammation, your doctor may request a biopsy. A lymph node biopsy is a short procedure in which the doctor removes a sample of lymph tissue. A pathologist will test this sample. This type of doctor examines tissue samples and interprets lab results. A biopsy is often the most reliable way to determine why lymph node inflammation has occurred.
Treatment for lymph node inflammation depends on its cause. In some cases, treatment may not be necessary. For example, treatment is unlikely to be recommended for:
- healthy adults whose bodies are already conquering the infection
- children, whose active immune systems can result in frequent swelling
If treatment is required, it can vary from self-treatment to surgery and other therapies.
In other cases, a course of antibiotics may be used to help the body fight the infection that’s causing lymph node swelling.
If a lymph node itself becomes infected, an abscess may form. Swelling will usually go down quickly when the abscess is drained. To do this, your doctor will first numb the area. Then they’ll make a small cut that allows the infected pus to escape. The area may be packed with gauze to ensure healing.
If your lymph node swelling is due to a cancerous tumor, there are a number of treatment options. These include surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, and radiation. Your doctor will discuss each of these options, including their pros and cons, before starting your treatment.