Lymph nodes are tiny glands that play an essential role in your body’s immune system. Your body’s cells and tissues dispose of waste in lymphatic fluid. Your lymph nodes then filter out foreign substances, including bacteria and viruses, from that lymphatic fluid.
Normal lymph nodes are approximately the size of a pea. When they come into contact with foreign substances in lymphatic fluid, they may swell. Lymph nodes can grow significantly, sometimes getting as big as a tennis ball.
Lymph nodes in the groin are also called inguinal lymph nodes. Swollen lymph nodes in the groin can be caused by an injury or skin infection anywhere in the leg, such as athlete’s foot. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and cancer can also cause swollen lymph nodes in the groin.
More often than not, swollen inguinal lymph nodes are caused by infections or injury affecting the lower body. This can include the:
- urinary tract
Examples of these include:
- Athlete’s foot: a fungal infection that usually begins with a scaly rash between the toes
- Jock itch: a fungal infection that causes a red, itchy rash in the groin area
- Vaginal or penile yeast infection: a common infection caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida
- Urinary tract infection (UTI): a common infection that can affect any part of the urinary tract
- Cellulitis: a common and potentially serious skin infection that most often affects the lower legs, and cause redness and swelling
- Balanitis: a skin irritation on the foreskin and head of the penis that is more common in those who are uncircumcised
- Prostatitis: a swelling of the prostate gland that can be caused by a bacterial infection or injury
- Cystitis: inflammation of the bladder most often caused by a UTI, but can also be caused by certain medications or irritating hygiene products
- Genital herpes: an STI that often begins with flu-like symptoms and swollen lymph nodes in the groin, before an outbreak of genital blisters
- Gonorrhea: a very common STI that often causes no symptoms, but can cause discharge and painful urination
- Syphilis: a serious STI that begins with a sore called a chancre and develops in stages, leading to serious complications if not treated
- HIV: a virus that affects the immune system and begins with flu-like symptoms and swollen lymph nodes
- Cat scratch disease: or cat scratch fever, which is a bacterial infection spread by cats that occurs if a cat bites or scratches a human or licks their open wound
In rare cases, swollen lymph nodes in the groin could be due to cancer. Cancer in the back, pelvis, and lower extremities can spread to the inguinal lymph nodes. Some of these types of cancer include:
Normal lymph nodes are small, painless, and move under the skin when pushed.
Most of the time, lymph nodes will swell in one area, close to the site of an injury or infection. When more than one area of lymph nodes swells, it’s called generalized lymphadenopathy.
Certain infections and cancers are more likely to cause multiple areas of lymph nodes to swell, including lymphoma, leukemia, and HIV. Measles, conditions that affect the immune system, and certain medications can also cause generalized lymphadenopathy.
A lymph node
Swollen lymph nodes in the groin may be painful to the touch and the skin over them may look red and inflamed, depending on the cause.
If your swollen lymph nodes are due to a lower body infection or injury, your other symptoms may include:
- a skin rash, irritation, or injury near the genitals or lower body
- vaginal or penile discharge
- skin blisters or ulcers on or around the genitals
- skin redness and inflammation
Other symptoms are more common when swollen lymph nodes are caused by cancer. These include:
To diagnose the cause of swollen lymph nodes in the groin, your doctor will begin with your medical and sexual history. They’ll ask about your symptoms, including how long your lymph nodes have been swollen.
Since certain medications can cause lymphadenopathy, the doctor will also want to know what medications you are taking.
Your doctor may also need to do additional testing, which may include:
- Physical exam. Your doctor will examine your swollen lymph nodes for size, consistency, pain, and warmth. They’ll also check for other lymphadenopathy and signs of infection and illness, including STIs.
- Urinalysis. You may be asked to provide a sample of your urine to check for signs of a UTI or other infection, including STIs.
- Pap test. A Pap test checks the cervix for abnormal cells and cervical cancer. An HPV test may be performed as well. HPV has been linked to cancer of the:
- STI testing. Along with cervical swabs and urine and blood samples, urethral swabs and other STI tests may be performed if an STI is suspected.
- Blood tests. Certain blood tests can help diagnose an underlying condition, including infections and leukemia. The blood tests ordered will depend on what your doctor suspects is causing your swollen lymph nodes. This may include a complete blood count (CBC), blood culture, and HIV tests.
- Imaging tests. Your doctor may order one or more types of imaging tests to help determine possible sources of infection or locate tumors. Imaging tests used may include an ultrasound of your abdomen, pelvis, and groin, or a CT scan of the affected area.
- Lymph node biopsy. If other tests don’t provide a diagnosis or cancer is suspected, your doctor may recommend a biopsy. A sample from a lymph node or an entire lymph node may be removed. The doctor will usually choose to biopsy the largest lymph node.
Swollen lymph nodes in the groin are a symptom, not a condition. Treatment depends on the underlying issue that’s causing your lymph nodes to swell.
If an infection is the cause, treatment depends on the type of infection and may include a topical treatment, oral treatment, or a combination of both.
- topical antibiotics for a skin infection
- OTC antifungal cream for athlete’s foot or jock itch
- OTC yeast infection treatments, such as creams or suppositories
- oral antibiotics for infections, including some STIs
- antiviral drugs, such as valacyclovir (Valtrex) and acyclovir (Zovirax) for genital herpes
- antiretroviral therapy for HIV
If cancer is causing your swollen lymph nodes, treatment depends on the type of cancer, the stage, and your age and overall health. Options may include:
How long until the swelling goes down?
Swollen lymph nodes usually return to normal when the underlying condition gets better. For instance, if you have a minor skin infection, such as athlete’s foot, your lymph nodes should go back to their normal size once you’ve treated the infection.
Swollen lymph nodes are a sign your body is doing its job to fight off an infection or illness, so you shouldn’t take steps to prevent this process.
That said, these tips can help you stay healthy and prevent illness and infection to begin with.
- Wash your hands regularly.
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
- Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
- Avoid touching your face, including your mouth, nose, and eyes.
- Refrain from sharing personal items like utensils and toothbrushes.
- Stay on top of your recommended vaccinations.
- Practice safe sex.
- Interact safely with animals.
- Steer clear of others who are sick.
Any lump in your groin should be evaluated by a doctor. See your doctor if:
- the swelling appeared for no obvious reason, such as a skin infection or injury
- the swelling is present for more than two weeks or continue to enlarge
- your lymph nodes feel hard or don’t move when you push on them
- the swelling is accompanied by persistent fever, unexplained weight loss, or night sweats
- you’ve been exposed to an STI
Most swollen lymph nodes in the groin are caused by a lower body infection or injury, but it could be something more serious. Talk with your doctor, especially if you have other symptoms.