Cervical lymphadenopathy is a term used to describe swollen lymph nodes in the neck. The condition is generally not a disease by itself; rather, it may be a symptom of one of many possible underlying problems. Cervical lymphadenopathy is usually a sign of an acute bacterial or viral infection, though swelling may also be due to an autoimmune disease or a chronic condition such as tuberculosis. Less commonly, cancers that either arise in the lymph nodes or spread to them from other parts of the body are responsible for this type of lymphadenopathy. It is important to visit a doctor whenever there is swelling and tenderness to receive an accurate diagnosis and learn about the best treatment options.
The cervical lymph nodes produce specialized immune system cells called lymphocytes that detect and combat pathogens in the body. When an infection is present, the nodes swell as they produce larger than normal quantities of lymphocytes. An infection in the sinuses, respiratory tract, throat, or elsewhere in the body can trigger cervical lymphadenopathy. Lymph node swelling due to infection is more commonly seen in infants and young children than in older people since immature immune systems are less adept at fighting off bacteria and viruses.
Cancer can also trigger lymph node swelling. In cases of lymphoma and leukemia, the lymphocytes themselves and other blood cells are malignant and proliferate within lymph nodes, leading to inflammation and tumors. Cancer can also spread to the cervical lymph nodes from other sites in the head, neck, or occasionally a site further away in the body.
Cervical lymphadenopathy is typically characterized by soft, puffy, tender areas along the base of the jaw or just behind and below the ears. Lymph nodes lower down on either side of the neck may enlarge as well. When infection is responsible, a person may have additional symptoms such as fever, sore throat, coughing, and sinus pressure. Early-stage malignancies may cause fatigue and weakness in addition to other symptoms.
A primary care doctor can make a basic diagnosis of cervical lymphadenopathy based on a quick physical exam. If infection is suspected, blood and sputum samples may be collected and tested in a laboratory. Imaging scans, including ultrasounds and computerized tomography, are helpful in detecting hard, potentially cancerous tumors in the neck. If a clear diagnosis cannot be made, a surgeon can collect fluid or tissue directly from a node to analyze in more detail.
Most bacterial infections can be effectively treated in about two weeks with antibiotics. Viruses that cause lymph node swelling typically require a few days or weeks rest, proper hydration, and medications. If cancer is discovered, a team of doctors will consider several different treatment options, including surgical removal of the nodes, chemotherapy, and radiation. Problems with the lymph nodes that are discovered early can usually be corrected without major risks of serious long-term complications.