A sore throat with swollen glands is very common. The lymph nodes (which are commonly, but mistakenly, referred to as “glands”) in your neck and other places in your body store white blood cells, filter germs, and respond to infections.
A sore throat and swollen glands often occur together. This is because if you have a sore throat, you’re likely sick and your lymph nodes are responding.
Your nose and throat are one of the main points of entry for germs entering the body. For this reason, they get mild infections often.
The body responds by making and sending white blood cells to kill the germs. Lymph nodes swell when they get full of white blood cells. You have many lymph nodes — 600 total — in other places in your body. They usually swell near whatever body part is sick or injured.
Your throat has three main areas that can become sore:
- Tonsils. These are multiple lymphatic soft tissue masses that are suspended throughout the back of your mouth.
- Larynx. Also known as your voice box, the larynx is used for breathing and preventing aspiration of foreign objects into the trachea.
- Pharynx. This is the passageway from your mouth and nose down to your esophagus and trachea.
Usually, a sore throat and swollen glands (lymph nodes) are not symptoms of something serious. They’re typically signs of the common cold. However, there are many other potential causes. Contact your doctor if:
- your glands are swollen for more than two weeks
- your swollen glands are accompanied by weight loss
- you have night sweats or fatigue
- the swollen glands are close to your collar bone or lower neck
Read below to learn what else can cause a sore throat and swollen lymph nodes.
The common cold is usually a harmless fact of life. It’s an upper respiratory system infection. Along with a sore throat, colds can cause:
- runny nose
Children are more likely to catch a cold, but adults can still expect to get a couple every year. Colds are caused by a virus and therefore cannot be cured with antibiotic therapy.
Adults can take over-the-counter (OTC) medication to treat symptoms, but most cold medicines aren’t safe for babies. A cold isn’t dangerous unless you have a serious complication, like trouble swallowing or breathing.
Call your doctor if your cold causes breathing difficulties or if you have other severe symptoms, such as a really sore throat, sinus pain, or an earache. If your newborn is sick, call the doctor for a fever at or above 100.4°F.
Like a cold, influenza is a common viral respiratory infection. The influenza virus is different than viruses that cause the common cold. However, their symptoms are almost the same.
Usually flu develops more abruptly and symptoms are more severe. Sometimes antiviral medication can treat flu by reducing the viral activity, but it usually resolves on its own.
Home treatment includes pain relieving medication, lots of fluids and rest. People at risk of complications from flu are young children, senior adults, and anyone with chronic health conditions who have a weakened immune system.
If you develop flu symptoms and you’re at risk of complications, call your doctor right away. Rarely, flu can cause serious and fatal health problems.
The most common bacterial throat infection is strep throat, also called Streptococcal pharyngitis. It’s caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. Strep throat can be hard to distinguish from a cold.
If you have severe throat pain and a fever, see a doctor for urgent diagnosis and treatment. Strep throat is diagnosed with a swab to test for Streptococcal bacterial cells. It’s treated with an antibiotic.
Sore throats, swollen glands in the neck, and ear infections often go together. One reason is because a sore throat and congestion can cause or be associated with an ear infection. Another reason is because the presence of an ear infection can cause the glands to swell in response, and pain can radiate into the throat and mouth.
Ear infections are common but need to be treated by a doctor. A doctor will diagnose if the infection is likely viral or bacterial and can offer proper treatment. Ear infections are usually not serious, however severe cases can cause long-term problems like brain damage and hearing loss.
Measles is a viral infection. It’s more common in children than adults. Symptoms include:
- dry cough
- sore throat
- rashes specific to the virus
Measles is usually prevented by a vaccine. Measles needs to be treated by a doctor, as it can have potentially serious complications.
Similar to an ear infection, the location and presence of infection in a tooth can cause a sore throat and swollen glands. The lymph nodes swell in response to the tooth and you can feel the pain throughout your mouth and throat.
An infected tooth needs urgent medical care to prevent a serious complication, and because oral health is important for everyday life.
Any inflammation of the tonsils, including that caused by a viral or bacterial infection, is called tonsillitis.
You have a few tonsils that all form a ring around the back of your mouth and upper throat area. Tonsils are lymphatic tissues that are a part of the immune system. Its components respond quickly to any germs that enter in your nose or mouth.
If tonsils become so sore or swollen that you have trouble breathing, get emergency medical help. Viral tonsillitis can typically be treated at home with fluids, rest, and pain-relieving medicine. Bacterial tonsillitis will require antibiotics.
If pain is persistent, or you have a fever, or you suspect you have strep throat, you will need a doctor to diagnose and offer proper treatment.
Infectious mononucleosis (or mono) is a common infection. It’s slightly less contagious than the common cold. It most often occurs in adolescents and young adults. Symptoms include:
- sore throat
- swollen glands
- swollen tonsils
- a swollen spleen
See a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve on their own. Potentially serious complications include spleen or liver issues. Less common complications include issues with the blood, heart, and nervous system.
Sometimes a sore throat is not due to illness, but to injury. Your glands can still swell as the body repairs itself. Sore throat injuries include:
- overusing your voice
- burning with food
- heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- any accident that physically harms your throat
See a doctor if you have severe pain or any trouble going about your daily life with a sore throat.
Rarely, a sore throat and swollen glands are signs of something very serious. For example, they may be symptoms of cancer, such as lymphoma, or even a solid cancer tumor that later spreads to the lymphatic system. Or they may be a symptom of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
In these cases, your symptoms might match some of the causes above but they come with other rare symptoms like night sweats, unexplained weight loss, and other infections.
People with HIV sometimes have recurring sore throats due to their lowered immune system. Lymphoma is a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system directly. Either case needs to be diagnosed and treated by a doctor. Never hesitate to get medical help if you have a recurring illness or something just feels off.
Remember, a sore throat with swollen glands is often just due to a common cold or the flu.
If you suspect something more serious might be going on, schedule an appointment to talk with your doctor. They’ll be able to give you a proper diagnosis and start a treatment regimen.