The lymphatic system is a major part of the immune system. It’s made up of various lymph nodes and vessels. The human body has hundreds of lymph nodes throughout different locations in the body.
The lymph nodes located in the neck are referred to as cervical lymph nodes.
Lymph nodes are small, encapsulated units in the lymphatic system. They filter lymph. Lymph is a fluid responsible for transporting lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) all throughout the body’s lymphatic vessel system.
Cervical lymph nodes, like the rest of the body’s lymph nodes, are responsible for fighting infection. They do this by attacking and destroying germs that are carried into the node through lymph fluid. After this filtering process is complete, any leftover fluid, salts, and proteins re-enter the bloodstream.
In addition to fighting germs that cause infection, such as viruses, some of the incredibly important tasks that lymph nodes perform for your immune system include:
- filtering lymphatic fluid
- managing inflammation
- trapping cancer cells
While lymph nodes can occasionally swell and cause discomfort, they’re essential to a healthy body and proper immune functioning.
Sometimes the lymph nodes in your neck, as well as other parts of your body, can swell. This common occurrence is referred to as lymphadenopathy. It can occur in reaction to infection, injury, or cancer.
Generally, swollen cervical lymph nodes are nonthreatening. Many things can cause cervical lymph node swelling, including:
- common cold
- ear infection
- scalp infection
- strep throat
Since lymphadenopathy tends to occur in one area of nodes at a time, it’s common for infections in or around the neck to trigger cervical lymph swelling. This is because the infection near the neck is filtered through the lymph nodes in the neck, which leads to swelling.
Other sites where lymph nodes commonly swell include the underarm and groin. Lymphadenopathy can also occur in the lymph nodes located inside the chest and abdominal cavities.
Cervical lymph node swelling can be a reliable indicator of infection or other inflammation in the area. It may also indicate cancer, but this is far less common. More often than not, swollen lymph nodes are just part and parcel of the lymphatic system doing its job.
Although it’s uncommon for swollen cervical lymph nodes to indicate a more serious condition, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you experience the following symptoms:
- prolonged tenderness and pain
- continual swelling for more than a week
- weight loss
These symptoms can indicate certain conditions that need immediate medical attention, such as:
- certain types of leukemia
- a solid cancer tumor that’s spread
If you’re experiencing common, mild swelling, there are a few options available to help manage it either directly or indirectly, such as:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen (Advil)
- adequate rest
- warm and wet washcloth compress
On the other hand, if the lymph nodes are swelling because of cancerous growth, treatment may include:
- irradiation therapy
- surgery to remove the lymph node
Viruses and bacteria are filtered through the lymphatic system to help fight infection. Because of this, swelling isn’t only common, it’s to be expected.
In rare instances, swollen cervical lymph nodes can point to serious conditions such as lymphoma or leukemia. If you’re experiencing swollen lymph nodes in your neck and you’re concerned, the best thing to do is talk to your doctor.