Swollen lymph nodes may be a symptom of infection, such as an ear infection or strep throat. Rarely, preauricular lymph nodes may swell due to cancer. Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause.

You have hundreds of small, oval- or bean-shaped lymph nodes (also known as lymph glands) throughout your body. Your lymph nodes, along with lymph vessels, are part of your immune system. Lymph nodes contain immune cells that help defend against disease.

Your lymph system filters fluid to remove harmful substances from your body. When your lymph system is working, fluids get drained away.

Normally, your lymph nodes are small and firm. When they’re healthy, you shouldn’t even notice them. A buildup of fluid can cause them to swell. Swollen lymph nodes may feel tender to the touch or even painful.

Continue reading to learn a few of the causes of swollen preauricular lymph nodes and when you should see a doctor or healthcare professional.

The preauricular lymph nodes are located just in front of your ears. They drain lymph fluid from your eyes, cheeks, and the scalp near your temples.

Generally, lymph nodes swell in only one area of your body at a time (localized lymphadenopathy). The problem, such as an infection, can usually be found near this swelling.

There are certain conditions, such as viral illnesses, that cause swollen lymph nodes in multiple areas of your body (generalized lymphadenopathy).

Whenever you have an infection, injury, or cancer, your lymph nodes spring into action to fight it off. In the process, they can become enlarged.

If you have swollen lymph nodes, it’s because something is wrong. Usually, the problem is located in close proximity to your affected lymph nodes. Following are some reasons you might have swollen or painful preauricular lymph nodes.

Ear infection

The outer part of your ear can become infected (called “swimmers ear”) when fluid builds up outside your eardrum. Allergies, sinus infections, and common colds can cause ear infections from your eardrum inward toward your throat. This wouldn’t affect a preauricular lymph node.

Eye infection

Parinaud’s oculoglandular syndrome is an atypical form of cat scratch disease associated with an infection of your conjunctiva (thin membrane that protects the eye), eyelid, or a connected skin surface. It’s caused by bacteria from a cat licking or biting you near your eye or from another infected site. You can also get it when a cat licks an open wound.

Other signs and symptoms of Parinaud’s oculoglandular syndrome may include:

  • mucus discharge from your eyes
  • puffiness around your eyes
  • swelling of your eyelids
  • corneal ulcer
  • low grade fever and pain

Some of the less common causes of Parinaud’s oculoglandular syndrome are:

Parinaud’s oculoglandular syndrome may result from other bacterial and fungal infections, such as sporotrichosis and blastomycosis (a lung infection).

Skin or scalp infection

Infections of your skin and the anterior (front) and temporal (side) regions of your scalp can spread to the preauricular lymph nodes. Infection of the lymph nodes (lymphadenitis) may be accompanied by fever. You might also develop an abscess. The skin over your lymph nodes may become red and warm.

Other conditions

While swollen preauricular lymph nodes aren’t among the main symptoms, these other conditions can sometimes cause generalized lymphadenopathy, or swollen lymph nodes located in two or more regions of your body:

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that begins in your lymphatic system, which includes your lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, and bone marrow. There are many different types, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Besides swelling of the lymph nodes, other symptoms are:

  • fatigue
  • fever, night sweats
  • shortness of breath
  • weight loss

Leukemia is cancer of your blood-forming tissue. That includes your lymphatic system. There are several different types of leukemia. Some are very aggressive (acute), and some tend to progress more slowly (chronic). In addition to swollen lymph nodes, leukemia can cause:

  • bleeding or bruising easily
  • enlarged liver or spleen
  • fatigue, weakness
  • fever
  • frequent infections
  • weight loss

A biopsy of the affected lymph node can help diagnose cancer.

Any type of cancer can spread into your lymph system and cause swollen or painful lymph nodes. That’s why when you receive a diagnosis of cancer, your nearby lymph nodes are usually examined.

Swollen or tender lymph nodes are a symptom, not a disease. Your treatment will depend on the cause of your swelling. Generally speaking, lymph nodes tend to return to normal size once the underlying condition is treated.

Ear, eye, skin, and scalp infections can generally be treated with antibiotics, a class of medication that treats certain infections. Any conditions that cause these infections should also be treated.

For an abscessed tooth, you may need a root canal to clear the infection. This would be followed by having a crown placed over your tooth. Alternatively, you can have the tooth drained by cutting into your gum tissue. This would be followed by a course of antibiotics. In some cases, the only remedy may be to have your tooth extracted.

There’s no standard treatment for rubella. Antibiotics are ineffective against it. But as long as there’s no complications, it should get better on its own. This disease can be prevented with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The treatment for cancer can be complex. It may involve some combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and biological and targeted drugs.

Treatment for lymphoma and leukemia depend on the specific type and your stage of cancer. Other considerations are your age, overall health, and personal preferences. In some cases, a stem cell transplant (also called a bone marrow transplant) is an option for treating lymphoma and leukemia.

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about preauricular lymph nodes.

What do swollen preauricular lymph nodes feel like?

Swollen preauricular lymph nodes may feel tender, rubbery, or firm to the touch. They may be painful depending on the underlying cause.

What is the most common cause of swollen preauricular lymph nodes?

Infections are the most common cause of swollen preauricular lymph nodes. This includes bacterial, viral, and fungal infections.

When should I see a doctor for swollen preauricular lymph nodes?

See a doctor if you have any swollen lymph nodes that last longer than 2 weeks or if you have pain in the affected area. If you have a personal or family history of cancer, it’s important to see a doctor right away.

See a doctor if there’s any redness or inflammation of your skin over your lymph node. This could be a symptom of infection.

How are swollen preauricular lymph nodes treated?

Treatment depends on the underlying cause. Infections can be treated with antibiotics or other medications, depending on your type of infection. If a tooth abscess is causing swelling, you may need to have a root canal or the tooth extracted. For cancer, treatment may involve chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted drugs.

Most of the time, swollen lymph nodes aren’t a symptom of a dangerous health problem. They should return to normal within a short period when the underlying condition clears up. But because they can occasionally be a symptom of a serious condition, see a doctor if:

  • You also have a persistent fever or unexplained weight loss.
  • There’s no apparent reason for your swelling.
  • The swelling continues for more than 2 weeks.
  • Your lymph nodes feel hard or rubbery.
  • Your lymph nodes don’t move when you push on them.
  • The skin over your lymph nodes is red or inflamed.
  • You have a personal history of cancer.
  • You have a family history of lymphoma or leukemia.