A lump on your neck could be anything from a minor infection to a serious condition. Most moveable lumps aren’t serious. In general, if the lump is soft and goes away on its own, it’s probably nothing to worry about.

A neck lump that persists, grows, or hurts could be a sign of infection or other illness. It’s sometimes the only sign of head or neck cancer. But trying to figure it out on your own can be risky.

Here, we’ll discuss reasons moveable lumps form in the neck and why it’s important to see a doctor.

A lump in the neck can be so tiny that you find it only by accident. Some are big enough to feel with your fingers and some grow large enough that you don’t have to touch it to know it’s there.

When you discover a lump, you might have concerns about cancer. Usually, soft moveable lumps aren’t cancerous, but there are exceptions. A moveable lump means that you can easily move it beneath the skin with your fingertips.

Swollen lymph nodes

The most likely reason for a lump on the neck is swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenitis). Healthy lymph nodes are small and firm. A lymph node is considered enlarged if it’s half an inch wide or bigger. And it means your body is fighting something.

Here are signs that a lump may be a swollen lymph node:

  • soft and moveable
  • tender or painful to the touch
  • redness of the skin
  • fever or other signs of infection

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck don’t necessarily mean the problem is your neck. It could be related to some type of infection of the:

Lymph nodes in the neck can also swell due a wide array of bacterial, viral, or fungus infections that affect the whole body. These are just a few potential culprits:

These illnesses usually produce other symptoms that can offer clues as to what’s going on.

Sometimes, lymph nodes in the neck can become enlarged due to cancers, such as:

  • trouble swallowing or breathing
  • sore throat or coughing that persists
  • earache or hearing loss on one side
  • changes to your voice
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • persistent pain
  • trouble moving your jaw
  • unexplained weight loss

Lipoma

Lipomas develop from an overgrowth of fat cells and are benign. A lipoma in the neck is:

  • soft and moveable
  • just under the skin
  • shaped like a dome
  • not painful

Unless they grow large or push on sensitive tissue, lipomas are harmless.

Goiter

A goiter is swelling of the thyroid gland, which is located in front of the neck. One telltale sign of a goiter is that it moves up and down when you swallow.

When the lump feels smooth to the touch, it’s because the entire thyroid is swollen. That’s called a diffuse goiter. If you feel individual lumps or general lumpiness, you likely have a nodular goiter.

A goiter can be small enough to ignore but can grow quite large. Symptoms of a severe goiter can include:

  • tightness in the throat
  • hoarseness, coughing
  • trouble swallowing or breathing

A goiter can develop due to:

  • overactive or underactive thyroid gland
  • hormonal imbalance
  • lack of iodine in your diet
  • radiation treatment to the neck or chest
  • thyroid cancer
  • taking lithium, a drug used to treat mental health disorders

Congenital cysts

Congenital cysts are those that develop before you’re born. They’re usually diagnosed at a young age. Those that may form on the neck are:

These cysts aren’t cancerous, but they can cause problems and are usually treated in childhood.

If you’re dealing with an illness and have swollen lymph nodes, they should return to normal size as you recover. In general, a lump that goes away within 1 to 2 weeks is not a serious problem.

Otherwise, it’s a good idea to have a doctor check it out. Be sure to discuss all other symptoms, even if you don’t think they’re related.

Physical examination will include feeling the lymph nodes under your throat, all around your neck, and down to the collarbone. A doctor may also take a look inside your ears, mouth, and throat.

Your symptoms and the physical examination will help determine next steps.

A lump that feels firm and doesn’t easily move under the skin is more likely to be cancerous than a soft, moveable lump. But moveable lumps can be suspicious, too. If you’re at high risk for cancer, your doctor may recommend a biopsy for a lump without a known cause.

If it appears that the problem is swollen lymph nodes, the next step is to find out if you have an infection. This may include:

When signs and symptoms point to a thyroid issue, thyroid function tests can help figure out what’s going on. At this point, your doctor may refer you to an endocrinologist for specialized care.

Imaging tests that can help with diagnosis include:

A lump in the neck may not need treatment at all, or your doctor may recommend a wait-and-see approach. This may be the case with lipomas or small goiters.

Swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes due to infection should go away as your body clears the infection. Treatment depends on the underlying infection, and may include:

  • antibiotics for bacterial infection
  • antivirals
  • fever reducers
  • pain relievers
  • anti-inflammatories

If lymph nodes fill with pus, they may have to be surgically drained.

Lipomas

Lipomas don’t always need treatment. You can have surgery to remove them if they grow too large, cause symptoms, or for cosmetic reasons.

Goiters

Treatment for a goiter depends on the size, symptoms, and the underlying condition causing it. Treatment may include:

  • thyroid hormone replacement medication
  • radioactive iodine
  • iodine supplements
  • surgical removal of the thyroid gland

Congenital cysts

Congenital cysts are usually surgically removed to prevent them from growing too large or getting infected.

Cancer

Moveable lumps are usually benign, but if cancer is found, treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer. Treatment could involve:

  • surgery
  • radiation treatment
  • chemotherapy
  • hormone or targeted therapies

There are several reasons you might have a moveable lump in the neck. Most of the time it turns out to be swollen lymph nodes. They usually resolve on their own or with treatment for an underlying infection.

Because even a soft, moveable lump can signal a serious condition, it’s important to see a doctor for examination.