Individuals experiencing a stiff neck and swollen glands likely to have an infection. Bacterial, fungal and viral infections generally initiate an immune response at the site of invasion, producing inflammation and swelling. Persistent symptoms or a high fever and headache may be signs of a serious medical condition. In rarer instances, the symptoms might be an indication of abnormal tissue growth.
Bacteria, fungi, or viruses causing an earache, sinus infection, or a sore throat can migrate deep into the tissue. There, they invoke an immune response from neighboring lymph nodes, commonly called lymph glands. The symptoms can occur with strep throat, oral yeast infections, and colds.
Lymph glands are small bean shaped nodes that exist throughout the body. The nodes connect lymph vessels one to another. The lymph vessels are also connected by blood vessels. Circulating throughout the lymphatic system are white blood cells, antibodies, and fluids. Together, they identify, mark and destroy foreign substances.
When white blood cells encounter foreign substances, some of them will attach to the invader while others will emit chemical signals that attract more white blood cells to the area. The combination of white blood cells and chemicals released into the lymph system cause inflammation and swelling. The nodes may become tender and swollen, large enough to feel through the skin.
In severe reactions, the nodes harden. When this response occurs throughout the nodes on one or both sides of the neck, a person can experience a stiff neck and swollen glands. He might also have a fever and a headache.
Meningitis is a serious medical condition requiring immediate attention. The illness generally begins as an infection and eventually travels to the brain. Individuals developing this malady often develop a stiff neck and swollen glands accompanied by a nauseating headache and a fever exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius). Additional symptoms include drowsiness, a skin rash, and light sensitivity. Medical attention should be sought if a stiff neck and swollen glands persist for two weeks or longer and are accompanied by breathing problems, swallowing difficulties, or weight loss.
Certain types of cancer can also produce a stiff neck and swollen glands as metastasized tissue travels through the lymph system to other parts of the body. Similar to an infectious process, the cancerous cells cause an immune reaction. Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system may produce swollen glands as abnormal tissue grows. Leukemia, a white blood cell cancer, causes the development of abnormal blood cells. These cells can congregate in a node in the neck region, producing a stiff neck and swollen glands.