What are Lymph Nodes?
The lymphatic system is a network of tissues/glands, organs, and channels throughout the body. This system transports lymph, a clear fluid containing lymphocytes, white blood cells that are one of the body’s main types of immune cells that help your body fight infection and illness. There are hundreds of lymph nodes in the body, many of which are in the neck, whose function is to filter the lymph. The lymph nodes stop bacteria, viruses, and diseased cells from passing the nodes and continuing throughout the body via the lymph vessels.
Why do Lymph Nodes in the Neck Become Enlarged?
Lymph nodes anywhere in the body can become swollen when you become ill or have an infection or just from inflammation, because your body has more lymphocytes than usual actively fighting this process. Lymph nodes can also accumulate bacteria, debris, and dead or diseased cells as your body fights illness.
When the lymph nodes in your neck become swollen they may feel about the size of a small bean or as big as a cherry. They’re often very tender or painful to the touch, and may cause discomfort while chewing, swallowing, or moving your head. When lymph nodes in your neck are very swollen (bigger than a quarter), they may be visible just below your ears, in your neck or along the jaw.
There can be a number of different specific causes for enlarged lymph nodes in the neck.
The most common cause of enlarged or swollen lymph nodes is infection. There are many different kinds of infection than can lead to enlarged lymph nodes, which usually occur with other symptoms related to the illness:
- Strep throat
- Flu (influenza virus)
- Upper respiratory infection (such as the common cold)
- Sinusitis (sinus infection)
- Ear infection
- Tooth infection
- Skin infection
- Cat Scratch Fever
- Mono (mononucleosis)
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck also may happen if a person has cancer. Lymph nodes that are enlarged (over a quarter size), painful, hard and immobile or associated with fevers, chills, nightsweats or weight loss can sometimes be a sign of cancer.
Hodgkin’s disease (or Hodgkin lymphoma) is cancer that originates in the lymphocytes themselves, usually in the neck, chest or armpits. Fortunately, Hodgkin lymphoma is often found early and is more treatable than many other forms of cancer. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma may originate in lymph nodes anywhere in the body. Other forms of cancer can also spread from one area of the body to the lymph nodes, which may mean the cancer is fast-growing and may make it more likely for cancer to spread to other parts of the body.
Leukemia is a form of cancer in which the bone marrow produces too many white blood cells that don’t die off in a normal cycle. Leukemia can often lead to enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, chest, or under arm.
Other Health Conditions
Some other health conditions can include enlarged lymph nodes as a symptom. These include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Allergic Reactions to Medications
When to See a Doctor
For many minor infections, you may have other symptoms that make it easy for you to recognize why your lymph nodes are swollen. But if your lymph nodes are swollen for more than a week, are larger than ½ an inch, are hardened, or if you have other concerning symptoms, it’s a good idea to consult with a doctor. Seek emergency care if your swollen lymph nodes in the neck make it difficult to breathe.
Diagnosing Enlarged Lymph Nodes in the Neck
When you visit a doctor for enlarged lymph nodes in a neck, you’ll have a physical exam and answer questions about your symptoms and medical history. Sometimes your doctor may need to order tests to determine the cause of your swollen lymph nodes. This may include blood tests, X-rays, ultrasound, MRI, PET or CT scans, or biopsies.
How are Enlarged Lymph Nodes Treated?
Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck can go away on their own, if the cause is minor. When an infection or illness is treated with antibiotics, antivirals, or other medications, this will usually also resolve enlarged lymph nodes if they are only a symptom of the condition being treated. Learn more about treatment options for swollen lymph nodes.
If your swollen lymph nodes are caused by cancer, the enlarged lymph nodes may not return to their normal size without cancer treatment, including chemotherapy to shrink tumors or sometimes surgical removal of affected lymph nodes. Learn more about head and neck surgery.
If you have concerning symptoms with enlarged lymph nodes in your neck, contact us at our Encino office or our West Hills office for a consultation with a board-certified ENT Specialist / Head & Neck Surgeon.