Alternative names: Enlarged lymph glands, Lymphadenopathy, Adenopathy, Lymphadenitis,
The lumps that you feel in your neck or under your jaw when you have a cold or a sore throat are called lymph nodes. Inflamed or enlarged lymph nodes can be a sign of a wide variety of disease conditions, ranging from a simple cold all the way to cancer. The location of the affected lymph nodes is often a good clue as to where the problem lies.
The lymphatic system is a complex network of thin vessels, valves, ducts, nodes and organs (for example the tonsils, spleen, and thymus). It helps to protect and maintain the fluid environment of the body by producing, filtering and conveying lymph, and by producing various immune blood cells. Lymph is a clear liquid containing white blood cells, proteins, salts, and water.
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands located throughout the body, all having the same function. The average human body has some 500-600 lymph nodes, with clusters found in the neck, armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin. They are part of the body's immune system and play an important part in the body's defense against infection: they help to destroy infectious agents and produce antibodies that will help prevent the same infection from occurring again in the future.
Lymph nodes are filters that can catch malignant tumor cells or infectious organisms. When they do, lymph nodes increase in size and are easily felt. Swelling can occur even if the infection is trivial or not apparent.
Swelling of lymph nodes generally results from localized or systemic infection, abscess formation, or malignancy; other causes of enlarged lymph nodes are extremely rare. By far the most common cause of lymph node enlargement is infection. As a rule, when swelling appears suddenly and is painful, it is usually caused by injury or an infection. Enlargement that comes on gradually and painlessly may result from malignancy or tumor.
Common causes of enlarged lymph nodes (and their usual location):
When lymph nodes are actively fighting infection, they may become swollen and painful as they produce and store large numbers of antibodies. Usually, the pain is mild, and the lymph node does not get much bigger than 2 centimeters (slightly under 1 inch) in size.
Common areas where enlarged lymph nodes can be felt (palpable nodes) include the groin area (inguinal region), armpit (axilla), the neck (there is a chain of lymph nodes on either side of the front of the neck, both sides of the neck, and down each side of the back of the neck), under the jaw and chin, behind the ears, and over the occiput (prominence on the back of the head). There are also lymph nodes that cannot be felt, in the abdomen, pelvis and chest.
Lymphangitis is a viral or bacterial infection in the lymphatic vessels which is characterized by painful, red streaks below the skin surface. This is a potentially serious infection which can rapidly spread to the bloodstream and be fatal. Aside from enlarged lymph nodes, other symptoms may include chills, fever, malaise, poor appetite, headache, and muscle aches.
While lymph nodes are the most common cause of a lump or a bump under the skin, there are other less common causes which should be ruled out:
A doctor can usually tell the difference upon physical examination.
Treatment of enlarged lymph nodes involves identifying the underlying medical condition and treating that. For example, a lump in the armpit caused by breast cancer is treated by following the appropriate cancer treatment.
Generally, if you have symptoms of a cold or other minor infection, give the glands about 2 weeks to go back to normal. No specific treatment is needed. If the glands are small (less than 2cm or ¾ inch across), are in your groin or under the chin, and you are a young adult, this is considered normal. Children tend to have a more active lymphatic system, so their glands may feel enlarged from time to time.
Soreness in lymph glands usually disappears in a couple of days without treatment. Glands become painful due to the rapid swelling of the gland in the early stages of fighting the infection. It takes much longer for the gland to return to normal size than it did to enlarge.
A lump in the armpit or elsewhere caused by a generalized viral infection will eventually disappear without therapy. A lump caused by an allergic reaction will go away after the allergen is removed.
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