Lymphoma develops when a type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte grows atypically. It usually starts in lymph nodes or other lymph tissue, but it can also start in your skin.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the two primary types, along with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. These cancers are differentiated based on how cancer cells look under a microscope.

Lymphoma is the third most common cancer of the head and neck. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most common cancers in the United States, accounting for about 4 percent of all cancers.

Swollen lymph nodes in the side of your neck are a common early symptom. Depending on where the cancer starts, you may also develop symptoms like headaches, dizziness, or sore throat.

Read on to learn more about the early symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma involving your head and neck.

One of the most common early symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a swollen lymph node caused by a buildup of atypical lymphocytes.

Swollen lymph nodes generally aren’t painful, and they cause a lump that moves when touched. Some people describe these lumps as having a soft or rubbery feel.

The most common locations for them to develop are the side of your neck, armpit, and groin. Your neck contains about 300 out of 800 of your body’s lymph nodes.

Other head and neck symptoms

More than 60 types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have been identified. Symptoms can vary depending on the type of lymphoma you have and where it forms. If lymphoma develops in your central nervous system, it can cause symptoms such as:

Symptoms of extranodal lymphoma

If the lymphoma has spread beyond lymph nodes, it’s known as extranodal lymphoma. About 10 to 35 percent of people have extranodal lymphoma at the time of diagnosis.

About half of extranodal lymphomas of the head and neck occur in an area called Waldeyer’s ring. This ring consists of your tonsils and other lymph tissue lining your throat. If the cancer affects your tonsils, you may experience:

Other symptoms of lymphoma around your throat and nose include:

Symptoms of oral lymphomas

Lymphoma can also develop inside your mouth. Oral lymphomas are most common in people with an HIV infection. Symptoms include ulcers, pain, and swelling.

Very rarely, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can develop at the base of your tongue and cause symptoms such as:

Lymphomas make up about 1.7 to 3.1 percent of all salivary gland cancers, which can cause symptoms such as:

  • a lump or swelling in your mouth, cheek, neck, or jaw
  • persistent pain in these areas
  • facial numbness
  • trouble fully opening your mouth

General symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

A buildup of atypical lymphocytes can crowd out healthy blood cells and lead to many general symptoms such as:

Symptoms that become more common and severe with advanced lymphoma are known as “B symptoms.” They include:

  • a fever greater than 100.4°F (38°C)
  • night sweats that drench your sheets
  • weight loss of more than 10 percent of your body weight for no apparent reason within 6 months

In the vast majority of people, swollen lymph nodes aren’t caused by non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Lymph nodes commonly swell when you have an infection and return to normal when the infection passes.

Lumps under your skin can also have other causes, such as cysts and lipomas.

Here’s a general comparison of typical symptoms of lymphoma versus those of an infection:

swollen lymph nodesswollen lymph nodes
loss of appetiteloss of appetite
easy bruising and bleedingcold or flu symptoms
swollen bellyvomiting or diarrhea
itchingredness, soreness, or swelling around an injury, such as a cut or burn

When to see a doctor

The National Health Service recommends seeing a doctor if:

  • your swollen glands continue getting bigger or don’t go away within 2 weeks
  • your swollen glands feel hard or don’t move when you press them
  • you have night sweats or a high fever for more than 3 to 4 days
  • you have no other signs of illness
  • your swollen glands are above or below your collar bone
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A diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma usually starts with a visit to your primary doctor. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, examine your medical history, and perform a physical exam.

If lymphoma or another health problem is expected, they will order additional tests such as:

  • Lymph node biopsy. During a lymph node biopsy, a small amount of tissue is extracted from a lymph node for lab testing. A lymph node biopsy is the only way to confirm a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. A bone marrow aspiration and biopsy involves removing a small sample of your bone marrow for lab testing to see if cancer is present.
  • Spinal tap. A spinal tap helps your doctor see if lymphoma cells are in the cerebral spinal fluid around your brain and spine.
  • Imaging tests. Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, PET scans, or MRIs can help doctors understand the extent of your cancer and see if treatment is working.
  • Blood tests. Blood tests can help doctors see how far the cancer has advanced and rule out other conditions.

After receiving a diagnosis, your doctor will likely want you to undergo further testing to better understand the type of cancer you have. You and your doctor can work together to assemble a cancer team and to determine the best cancer treatment.

Your team will likely consist of a variety of medical professionals such as:

  • oncologists
  • radiologists
  • dermatologists
  • nurses
  • nurse practitioners
  • clinical social workers

Treatment options for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma depends on the extent of your cancer, how aggressive it is, the specific type you have, and your overall health. It will likely consist of some combination of:

Support groups

Joining a support group can help you cope with and understand your condition. Your doctor may be able to recommend a local support group in your area. You can also find support from these sources:

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The most common early symptom of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a swollen lymph node. Swollen lymph nodes can appear anywhere on your body but are most common in your armpit, neck, or groin.

Most of the time, swollen lymph nodes aren’t caused by lymphoma or other cancers. But if a swollen lymph node gets bigger or doesn’t go away after about 2 weeks, it’s a good idea to contact a doctor.