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Lymph nodes are tiny capsules, about the size of a pea or small bean that are filled with the cells that help protect the body from illness, which are types of white blood cells called macrophages and lymphocytes. When you get ill, these cells go into action to fight disease, and the lymph nodes may swell due to presence of disease or abnormal tissue in the lymph nodes. There are actually several reasons why lymph nodes become swollen, and many conditions that can cause painful swollen nodes. Which lymph nodes become swollen can sometimes help track which diseases are creating the problem.
Lymph nodes become swollen usually from bacterial or viral infections. As bacteria or viruses invade the nodes, they harden and inflame, and they can really begin to hurt. With colds and flus, you may note painfully swollen nodes around the throat, under the arms and at the groin. When lymph nodes reach very large sizes, especially those around the throat and under the jaw, you may have mumps. Other conditions may sometimes cause large lymph nodes around this area, like strep throat, measles, ear infections, cat scratch fever, gonorrhea, syphilis, toxoplasmosis, or mononucleosis.
Sometimes lymph nodes become swollen and indicate an infection present elsewhere in the body. For instance, if you have an infected cut or wound, or you have a blood infection, you may note lymph nodes become swollen throughout the body. Usually they are most swollen closest to the infection, if it’s on the skin.
In some cases, autoimmune disorders mean lymph nodes become swollen more or less chronically. This is because the body turns on itself, and produces extra white blood cells to attack regular aspects of the body it views as foreign tissue. Typical autoimmune disorders like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or HIV may mean lymph nodes become swollen or remain swollen for long periods of time.
Swollen lymph nodes can also indicate the presence of foreign abnormal tissue in the nodes, in other words forms of cancer. Lymphoma for instance, specifically attacks the lymph system, and may result in one or more lymph nodes swelling. In other cases, blood cancers like leukemia, mean lymph nodes become swollen.
A swollen lymph node is usually considered to be .39 inches (about a centimeter) in diameter. You’ll definitely be able to feel swelling in most cases, and it can be painful. When you’ve had a doctor identify the cause, treatment of the causal factor can help gradually bring down lymph node swelling. In the interim, while treatment has not yet worked, you can address the discomfort by taking anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen. You can also use warm compresses on the swollen nodes to help bring some relief for the condition. Given the potentially serious causes of swollen lymph nodes, do check with a doctor if lymph node swelling doesn’t reduce in a few days.
FAQ on Why Lymph Nodes Become Swollen
What are the common causes of swollen lymph nodes?
Swollen lymph nodes, also known as lymphadenopathy, can be caused by a variety of factors. Infections, such as viral illnesses like the common cold, bacterial infections like strep throat, or more serious conditions like mononucleosis, are frequent culprits. Immune system disorders, including lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, and cancers like lymphoma or leukemia can also cause lymph nodes to swell. It's important to consult a healthcare provider if swelling persists or is accompanied by other symptoms.
How can I tell if my lymph nodes are swollen?
You may notice that your lymph nodes are swollen if they feel tender, enlarged, or firm when you touch them. Common areas where swollen nodes can be detected include the neck, under the chin, in the armpits, and around the groin. Swelling can range from pea-sized to as large as an olive. If you're unsure, a healthcare professional can help determine if your lymph nodes are swollen and the potential cause.
When should I see a doctor for swollen lymph nodes?
It's advisable to consult a doctor if your lymph nodes are swollen for more than two weeks, continue to enlarge, or are accompanied by other symptoms like night sweats, weight loss, fever, or if they feel hard or don't move when you press on them. Immediate medical attention is recommended if the swelling appears suddenly and is painful, as this could indicate a more serious condition.
Can swollen lymph nodes be a sign of cancer?
While swollen lymph nodes are often a sign of infection, they can also be an indicator of cancer in some cases. Cancers such as lymphoma or leukemia can cause lymph nodes to swell. According to the American Cancer Society, if the swelling is painless, persistent, and accompanied by symptoms like weight loss or fever, it may warrant further investigation for cancer or other serious conditions.
Are there any treatments for swollen lymph nodes?
Treatment for swollen lymph nodes focuses on addressing the underlying cause. If the cause is a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. For viral infections, rest and fluids are often recommended. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help alleviate discomfort. In cases where cancer is the cause, treatment may involve chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Always follow the treatment plan advised by your healthcare provider for the best outcome.