Your lymph nodes play an important part in your immune health. As part of the lymphatic system, they help filter out bacteria and viruses that might otherwise cause infection throughout your body.
Lymph node swelling is fairly common and usually not serious. If you only have swelling in one or two lymph nodes, you likely have an infection in a nearby part of your body. For example, swelling in the lymph nodes of your throat typically indicate some type of throat infection.
Occipital lymph nodes are those found on the back of your head, near the base of your skull. Read on to learn about the potential causes of swelling in these nodes.
Scalp infections are some of the most common causes of swollen occipital lymph nodes. These can result from either bacteria or fungus.
General symptoms of a scalp infection include:
- itching on your scalp
- scaly or dry areas on your scalp
- sores, blisters, or crusted patches of skin on the face and scalp
- hair loss
- scalp pain or tenderness
A few different scalp infections could cause these symptoms:
- Ringworm. This contagious fungal infection is generally recognized by round, scaly bald patches on the scalp. Ringworm typically isn’t serious, but you’ll need treatment to prevent persistent or serious inflammation.
- Head lice. The main sign of head lice is an itchy scalp, but you could also have swollen lymph nodes. Head lice spread easily, so you’ll need quick treatment to kill lice and their eggs.
- Impetigo of the scalp. This common bacterial infection involves red sores that burst and crust over. Impetigo is very contagious, but antibiotics can treat the infection and help reduce your risk of spreading it.
- Scalp psoriasis. Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition recognized by itchy, silver patches of skin that can be powdery or scaly. Swollen lymph nodes along with scalp psoriasis could suggest you have a yeast infection on your scalp. Antifungal medications usually clear up yeast infections in a few days.
In addition to swollen occipital lymph nodes, rubella can also cause:
- a pink rash that spreads from your face to your torso, arms, and legs
- nasal congestion
- eye inflammation and redness
- head and joint pain
- fever, usually no more than 102°F (38.9°C)
Rubella can have serious health consequences for a developing fetus, so it’s important to see your doctor right away if you’re pregnant and think you could have rubella.
Otherwise, most people recover with plenty of rest and over-the-counter pain relievers.
The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which children receive before beginning school, is the best way to prevent rubella.
This contagious infection causes symptoms that may last for several weeks. It’s most often caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. Treatment primarily involves rest and plenty of fluids, as mono eventually clears up on its own.
One of the most common symptoms is swollen lymph nodes, particularly in your neck, under your arms, or in your groin. It can also cause swelling in the occipital nodes.
Other symptoms of mono include:
- head and muscle pain
- sore throat and swollen tonsils
- decreased appetite
In general, mono isn’t serious. But it can occasionally cause complications, including liver issues or an enlarged spleen, so it’s best to follow up with your healthcare provider.
Mono is spread through saliva, so you should avoid sharing food or drinks with others and cover your coughs and sneezes while you have symptoms.
Rarely, swollen lymph nodes at the base of your neck could indicate a type of cancer called lymphoma. If you have lymphoma, lymph nodes in other areas may also swell, though this swelling typically won’t cause pain.
Experts aren’t completely certain what causes lymphoma, but it develops when certain white blood cells in your body, called lymphocytes, mutate and begin multiplying at a faster rate than they typically would.
These cells live longer as a result of the mutation, so they begin to build up in your lymph nodes, making them swell.
Along with swelling in your lymph nodes, lymphoma may cause:
- fever and chills
- coughing and shortness of breath
- night sweats
- weight loss
- fatigue and weakness
- pain in your chest
Lymphoma can develop in people of all ages. Treatment generally depends on how advanced the cancer is when it’s discovered and the specific type of lymphoma you have.
It’s generally a good idea to see your healthcare provider if you have a combination of the above symptoms and they persist for a few weeks or longer.
On their own, swollen occipital lymph nodes often aren’t serious. But if you have swelling in multiple lymph nodes throughout your body, it’s best to see your healthcare provider.
In general, it’s also a good idea to make an appointment if:
- the swelling doesn’t have a clear cause
- you have swelling in other lymph nodes as well
- the lymph nodes remain swollen for more than two weeks
- the lymph nodes feel hard and don’t move under your finger
- the swelling is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, night sweats, and intermittent fevers
Many things can cause lymph nodes to swell. And in some cases, there isn’t a clear underlying cause. If you have swelling in your occipital lymph nodes for more than two weeks, or notice other unusual symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider.