What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes? Treatment and Diagnosis

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 19, 2022

Your lymph nodes are a network of small bean-shaped glands connected by lymphatic vessels spread throughout your body.

They play an important role in your immune system.

Swollen lymph nodes can mean your body is fighting an infection, autoimmune disease, or cancer.

Sometimes the swelling can cause tenderness. Treatment depends on the underlying cause.

Read on to learn the signs of swollen lymph nodes and what could be causing them.

In this article, I’ll also discuss how the cause of swollen lymph nodes is diagnosed and what treatments are available.

Lastly, you’ll learn when it’s important to seek medical attention.

What Are Lymph Nodes?

Your lymph nodes are spread throughout most of your body.

Common areas you can feel swelling in include:

  • Sides of the neck
  • Under the jaw and chin
  • Armpits
  • Behind the ears
  • Back of the head
  • Groin

Your lymphatic system is a network of lymphatic vessels that hold lymph (fluid) and lymphatic organs (lymph nodes, tonsils, spleen, and thymus).

The lymphatic system has three jobs:

  • Maintain fluid balance in the body
  • Absorb vitamins and fats from the food you eat
  • Filter out microorganisms and other particles that could cause disease

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Signs of Swollen Lymph Nodes

When the body has a foreign invader that could potentially cause infection or disease, the lymph nodes work to filter it out.

Lymphadenopathy is the medical term for swollen lymph nodes.

Usually, swollen lymph nodes can be felt with the fingers.

When swollen, they can cause some tenderness in that area. 

Depending on the underlying cause, the swollen lymph nodes can be in a localized area or spread throughout the body.

Localized swelling typically means a local infection, whereas swelling of lymph nodes throughout the body means a systemic medical condition.

Lymph nodes that swell suddenly and are painful can be due to infection or injury.

Lymph nodes that swell slowly and painlessly may be from a tumor. 

Other symptoms you may experience along with swollen lymph nodes are:

  • Tenderness
  • Fever
  • Redness of skin over lymph nodes
  • Other symptoms related to the underlying cause

Causes

Many times, swollen lymph nodes don’t mean anything serious.

In most cases, it is a sign of an infection, and only rarely does it mean cancer. 

Infections

Infections are the leading cause of swollen lymph nodes.

Infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungus. 

Some of the common bacterial infections that can cause lymphadenopathy include:

Lymphadenitis is an infection of the lymph nodes themselves that is usually caused by bacteria but can also be in response to a virus or fungi.

Viruses

Viruses can also cause infections that will cause your lymph nodes to swell. 

Some common viral infections include:

  • Common cold
  • Influenza (flu)
  • Mononucleosis
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Herpes
  • Hepatitis

Fungal infection

Fungal infections are more common if you have a weak immune system or take antibiotics.

Some fungal infections that can cause the lymph nodes to swell include:

  • Vaginal yeast infection
  • Candida of the mouth or throat
  • Valley fever
  • Blastomycosis
  • Cryptococcosis
  • Histoplasmosis

Inflammation

Inflammation can be caused by immune or autoimmune disorders such as:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Kawasaki disease
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Sjogren syndrome
  • Systemic lupus

Cancer

Cancer is not a typical cause of swollen lymph glands but in rare cases, it can be. 

  • Hodgkin disease
  • Leukemia
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Metastatic breast cancer
  • Cancers of the skin

Other causes

There are certain medications that can cause you to have swelling in your lymph nodes such as:

  • Typhoid vaccine
  • Phenytoin and other seizure medications
  • Allopurinol (for gout)
  • Some blood pressure medications (atenolol, captopril, hydralazine)
  • Some antibiotics (penicillin, cephalosporins, sulfonamides)
  • Some anti-parasitic medications (pyrimethamine and quinidine)

Diagnosis

To diagnose what is causing your lymph nodes to swell, your primary medical professional will start by reviewing your medical history and current medications.

They will then ask you questions about when you noticed the swelling and what other symptoms you are experiencing.

The physical exam will include checking your vital signs, palpating (feeling) the lymph nodes, and checking your ears, nose, and throat.

They will also listen to your breath sounds and heart and may have you lay on your back so they can palpate your abdomen.

Lab tests

Depending on your symptoms, your medical professional may order lab work.

A blood draw can show if there is a potential infection and can also check the function of your liver and kidneys.

Imaging

If needed, diagnostic imaging may be ordered.

A chest x-ray can look for potential problems with your lungs or heart.

A liver-spleen scan can check how well the liver and spleen are working and if there are any masses forming.

A computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen, chest, and pelvis can reveal if there is a pattern of swelling in the lymph nodes.

CT scans can also assist with a lymph node biopsy if the medical team needs to look at the fluid under a microscope. 

Ultrasound can be used to differentiate which lymph glands are swollen and which are normal in size.

It can also help the medical team figure out what is filling the lymph nodes and determine if it is liquid or more solid.

After all the imaging is completed, if there is something suspicious noted, a biopsy can be completed.

A biopsy is when an area is numbed and a needle is inserted.

A bit of fluid or tissue is collected and analyzed.

This will provide a final diagnosis about the source of the inflammation and identify whether it is from infection, cancer or another source. 

Treatment

Treatment will depend on what is causing your lymph nodes to swell.

For bacterial or fungal infections, your medical professional may give you a prescription for antibiotics or antifungal medication.

Be sure to take the whole course of treatment even if you start to feel better.

If you stop the medication early, the infection can return.

For viral infections, antibiotics do not work and sometimes there is no treatment other than rest, staying hydrated, and eating nutritious foods. 

Immune and autoimmune disorders have several treatments available and should be handled by a specialist. 

Cancer treatment is usually a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy.

Your medical professional will discuss with you the best course of action for your cancer. 

If you are taking a medication that you believe is causing your lymph nodes to swell, be sure to talk with your medical professional first before discontinuing the medication.

Some medications are dangerous to stop and need to be tapered down.

You can discuss other options to treat your medical condition so that your lymph nodes are not swelling. 

Pain management

If your swollen lymph nodes are causing you some pain, try these tips:

  • Use a cool compress to reduce swelling 
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can reduce pain and inflammation 

Concerned about swollen lymph nodes? Chat with a provider through K Health.

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When To Seek Medical Attention

Call your healthcare professional if:

  • After a few weeks, your lymph nodes are still swollen or growing
  • Your skin is red and tender over the swollen lymph nodes
  • Your lymph nodes feel irregular, hard, or fixed in place

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Is a swollen lymph node serious?
Typically, a swollen lymph node is not a serious problem. It is a sign that your immune system is fighting an infection. In rare cases, it is a sign of cancer.
What is the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes?
The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes are infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
What do swollen lymph nodes usually indicate?
Your lymph nodes help your body fight infection. When they encounter an invader, they make more infection-fighting cells which cause the lymph nodes to swell.
How long will lymph nodes remain swollen?
The lymph nodes can remain swollen for as long as there is a medical condition causing them to swell. For infections, swelling can last a couple of weeks before the nodes return to their normal size. For systemic inflammation and cancers, the swelling may remain for longer periods of time.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.