Swollen Glands: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

They are generally a sign of infection and tend to decrease when the individual recovers.

However, sometimes they can have a more serious cause and may need to be seen by a doctor.

Lymph glands (also called lymph nodes ) are pea-sized masses of tissue that contain white blood cells.

Lymph glands are distributed throughout the body and play an important role in fighting disease.

These help fight bacteria, viruses, and act as a checkpoint for these organisms and any other cause of infection.

These ganglia store the white blood cells that are responsible for destroying the foreign particles that gain access to the body.

They are an important part of the immune system and are found throughout the body.

The lymphatic glands present in the neck, armpit, and behind the ears are easily palpable compared to others.

The lymphatic glands are present individually or in groups, and are visible only when they are swollen or enlarged.

At the time of infection, dead cells, bacteria, viruses, and other organisms accumulate in the glands, causing inflammation or swelling, a few inches in diameter.

The swollen glands, known medically as lymphadenopathy, can be felt under the chin or in the neck, armpits, or groin, where they can be found in larger clumps.

Many different types of infection can cause swollen glands, such as a cold or glandular fever.

Less commonly, swollen glands can be caused by a non-infectious condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or even cancer.

Major clinical manifestations include arthritis, alopecia, mucosal ulcers, skin, hematologic, renal, and central nervous system involvement, photosensitivity, and serositis.

Common causes of swollen glands

Increased activity of the lymphatic gland due to triggers such as infection and inflammation leads to swollen glands.

During an infection, the lymph nodes filter the lymphatic fluid and begin a fight against the foreign object.

During this process, the nodes accumulate debris containing dead bacteria or other invading organisms and dead cells.

The common cold is one of the most common causes of swollen glands.

Swollen glands are usually caused by a viral, bacterial, fungal infection, and other conditions such as:

  • Viral infections such as chickenpox, infectious mononucleosis, adenoviral infections, measles, herpes, and HIV can result in swollen lymph nodes.
  • Strep, tuberculosis, chlamydia, syphilis, staph, cat scratch disease, and sexually transmitted bacterial infections also cause enlarged lymph glands.
  • Some parasitic infections such as toxoplasmosis and leishmaniasis have swollen lymph nodes as one of the associated symptoms.
  • Fungal infections that cause swollen lymph nodes include coccidiomyosis and histoplasmosis.
  • Swollen lymph glands can also be caused by lice infestation and tooth infections.
  • Systemic inflammatory diseases, lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis are also implicated in enlargement of the glands.
  • Certain cancers can also cause swollen lymph nodes. Lymphomas that originate in the lymph glands are common leukemia that originate in blood cells that lead to swollen glands.
  • Transplant rejection and genetic lipid storage disease can also lead to swollen glands, although not as often as other diseases.
  • Certain medications are known to cause swollen glands. This includes anti-seizure and antimalarial drugs.

In some people, a slight swelling in the glands is not considered abnormal.

The small, flat, slightly enlarged lymph gland below the jaw is normal in some children and adults.

Swelling in the lymph nodes in the groin is also normal in some young adults.

In some rare cases, the underlying cause of the symptom may not be determined.

Cancer is the likely cause of inflammation if the swelling:

  • It grows and persists for more than two to three weeks.
  • It is painless and difficult to touch.
  • It does not move flexibly when touched.
  • It is associated with night sweats and unexplained weight loss.

Occasionally, swollen glands can be a sign of cancer that started elsewhere in the body and has spread to the lymph nodes, or a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma or chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Symptoms

Some common symptoms seen with swollen glands are:

  • Runny nose.
  • Throat pain.
  • Swelling in the extremities.
  • Hard and enlarged nodes.
  • Fever.
  • Night sweats.
  • Difficulty to swallow.
  • Unexplained weight loss

As mentioned above, the ganglia or glands can be present individually or in groups.

The swelling of the glands can be localized or general.

Each lymph node or group drains the lymphatic vessel present in the specific region.

Therefore, swelling of specific glands indicates inflammation or infection in that region.

For example, infections of the tonsils and throat and the common cold lead to swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

Scalp conditions, such as lice, cause swelling of the lymph gland at the back of the head.

Skin infections cause swollen lymph nodes in the armpit.

Inguinal nodule swelling is caused by leg infections and diaper rash.

Viral infections generally affect the entire body. Therefore, the flu and chickenpox can lead to swollen lymph glands in the neck, groin, and armpits.

Generally, generalized swelling is seen in HIV infection and in immune system disorders such as lupus.

Swollen lymph nodes in the extremities indicate a blockage of lymphatic channels in the region.

Node enlargement is rapid when caused by a tumor.

The swelling in the glands can be reduced when the associated infection resolves.

Diagnosis

The medical history, physical exam, blood tests, and imaging studies are used to diagnose the underlying cause of the swelling.

Lymph node biopsy may be recommended in some rare cases for confirmation of the diagnosis.

The gland inflammation can be as small as a pea or as large as a cherry.

The swelling can be flexible and can move when touched. It can be painful or painless.

During the physical exam, the doctor can feel the nodes that are present near the surface of the body. This helps identify the most likely cause of the condition.

Nodules on the sides of the neck, groin, and armpits can be easily felt and evaluated for the cause of the swelling.

The most visible lymph node in the body is the tonsil, present at the back of the throat.

The nodules present inside the body are controlled with the help of imaging techniques.

The underlying cause of the disease is evaluated with the help of a complete medical history and physical examination.

Information about other symptoms associated with bloating is also helpful.

This includes details of a sore throat, fever, chills, medications, weight loss, and travel history.

The location of the swelling also provides a clue to the cause of the symptom, as the lymph nodes respond to the alteration in location.

Therefore, the presence of swollen glands under the arms may be due to a localized infection of the skin.

Swollen lymph nodes are classified based on sensitivity, size, mobility, hardness, and firmness.

These characteristics also help identify the most likely cause of swelling.

Hard, immovable, and constantly growing nodes can be caused by cancer in a nodule, while infections can cause small, tender, and moveable swellings.

Lymph node biopsy is the recommended investigation technique if the suspected cause is cancer. A biopsy helps identify the type of cancer.

In most cases, the swollen glands are harmless and resolve without any specific treatment.

Swelling caused by any underlying condition can be reduced by treating the condition as such.

Treatment

Treatment of swollen glands also depends on the actual cause of the symptom.

No specific treatment is required for a viral infection that leads to swollen glands.

The swelling can resolve once the infection is over.

The inflammation is reduced with the help of medications and therapies that control the underlying condition.

Mild forms of lymphadenopathy can be relieved with simple home remedies and treatment with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Swelling caused by a viral infection can resolve when the infection resolves.

Swollen glands caused by a bacterial infection can be prevented to some extent.

Early antibiotic treatment and proper wound cleaning are effective in preventing infection and helping to reduce swelling in the gland.

Bacterial infection can lead to sepsis, a condition characterized by infection of the bloodstream.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition and requires hospitalization for treatment.

Monitoring is the conventional method followed in treating swollen glands.

Specific treatment targeting immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus helps control swelling indirectly.

Cancer is treated with chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy.

Surgery to remove the lymph nodes is suggested if the lymph node is large and is associated with other findings, such as an enlarged liver or spleen.

Abnormal blood count and enlarged nodes on X-rays also indicate the need for surgical removal of the nodes.

This is most prominent in children where the swelling can remain for a few weeks even after successful treatment of the underlying condition.

Swollen lymph nodes are associated with certain complications, such as abscess formation.

This is particularly true if the underlying infection is not treated.

Abscess formation is treated with drainage and antibiotics.

An enlarged lymph node above the collarbone is a sign of a more serious condition such as Hodgkin’s disease.

Basic home care for swollen glands includes pain relievers, adequate rest, and drinking plenty of fluids.