Swollen lymph nodes can result from an infection or illness. If they last for a long time or occur with concerning symptoms, you may need medical care.
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, also called lymphadenopathy, 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 indicates some type of throat infection.
Occipital lymph nodes are those found on the back of your head, near the base of your skull. Healthcare professionals may also call them posterior cervical lymph nodes. Read on to learn about the potential causes of swelling in these nodes.
There are many conditions that can cause swelling in the occipital lymph nodes.
Local bacterial infections, such as in the throat or nearby skin, may cause your occipital lymph nodes to swell.
Impetigo of the scalp is one common bacterial infection that can cause this. It involves red sores that burst and crust over. Impetigo is very contagious, but antibiotics can treat the infection and help reduce the risk of transmission.
Cat scratch disease is another condition that can cause swollen occipital lymph nodes. This happens when a cat scratches you and transfers the bacteria Bartonella henselae from its saliva to your wound, which then becomes infected.
Usually, this condition goes away by itself, or a healthcare professional may prescribe antibiotics. In rare cases, the condition becomes more serious.
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.
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 the lice and their eggs.
Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition characterized by itchy, silver patches of skin that can be powdery or scaly. It is an autoimmune condition, meaning your body experiences inflammation that may not be due to an infection.
In addition to swollen occipital lymph nodes, rubella can 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 vast majority of children around the world receive the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine before beginning school. Getting the vaccine is the best way to prevent rubella.
This contagious infection is also called mono. It 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 a healthcare professional.
Mono is spread through saliva, so 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 professional if you have a combination of the above symptoms and they persist for a few weeks or longer.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. Like lymphoma, it is a much less likely cause of swelling in the occipital lymph nodes than bacterial or viral infections.
The most common type of melanoma people get on the head and neck is called nodular melanoma. These tumors tend to be blue or black on the skin, but sometimes are the same color as your skin, and they can grow very quickly.
Healthcare professionals often use surgery to remove melanoma on the skin.
Autoimmune diseases are
In autoimmune diseases, your immune system attacks the body’s own cells, mistakenly identifying them as intruders.
These conditions include:
If you have swollen occipital lymph nodes and they seem to be connected to a cold, it’s likely no cause for concern. A large majority of cases of swollen lymph nodes are not due to a serious condition.
However, if you have them but aren’t sure of the cause, they’ve been swollen for more than a couple of weeks, or you have lymph node swelling in multiple places on your body, see a healthcare professional.
To find the cause of your swollen occipital lymph nodes, your healthcare professional will need to ask you about your medical history and do a physical exam. They will also feel the swollen lymph nodes, noting the size and firmness, and whether you feel pain when they’re gently pressed.
Generally speaking, if none of your other lymph nodes are swollen, this suggests a localized cause rather than a condition that’s affecting your whole body.
Your healthcare professional may investigate the issue further using:
- a blood test
- a computerized tomography (CT) scan
- a biopsy of the lymph node tissue
Treatment for the condition that’s causing your swollen occipital lymph nodes will depend on the cause.
- Antibiotics. A doctor may prescribe these for a bacterial infection, including impetigo.
- Antifungal medication. You may receive these for a fungal infection, such as ringworm.
- Immune therapy. If the swelling is due to an autoimmune reaction, a healthcare professional may recommend immune therapy or glucocorticoid medication.
- Cancer treatment. Cancers such as melanoma or lymphoma may require surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.
- Supportive care. This is the main treatment for mono and rubella — healthcare professionals typically don’t prescribe antiviral medications for these.
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 a healthcare professional.
In general, it’s also a good idea to make an appointment if your:
- swelling doesn’t have a clear cause
- swelling is in other lymph nodes as well
- lymph nodes remain swollen for more than 2 weeks
- lymph nodes feel hard and don’t move under your finger
- swelling is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, night sweats, and intermittent fevers
Many things can cause lymph nodes to swell. In some cases, there isn’t a clear underlying cause.
If you have swelling in your occipital lymph nodes for more than 2 weeks or you notice other unusual symptoms, make an appointment with a healthcare professional.