Swollen Glands: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

Lymphadenitis is the medical term for inflammation or enlargement of one or more lymph nodes, usually due to infection.

The lymph nodes are full of white blood cells that help your body fight infection.

When lymph nodes become infected, it is usually because an infection starts somewhere else in your body. In rare cases, lymph nodes may become enlarged due to cancer.

You have about 600 lymph nodes in your body, but normal lymph nodes can only be felt under the jaw, arms, and groin area.

A normal lymph node is characterized by being small and firm. When lymph nodes become infected, they usually enlarge, become tender, and can be felt in other areas of your body during a physical exam.

Infections that spread to the lymph nodes are usually caused by bacteria, viruses, or a fungus. It is essential to learn how the infection spreads to the lymph nodes to start proper treatment.

Lymphadenitis can be of two types:


  • Localized lymphadenitis – This is the most common type. Localized lymphadenitis involves one or just a few nodes near the area where the infection started. For example, enlarged nodes may be felt due to a tonsil infection in the neck area.
  • Generalized lymphadenitis: This type of lymph node infection occurs in two or more groups of lymph nodes and can be caused by a condition that spreads through the bloodstream or another disease that affects the entire body.

What Causes Lymphadenitis?

Lymphadenitis occurs when one or more lymph nodes become infected by a bacteria, virus, or fungus.

When lymph nodes become infected, it is usually because an infection started somewhere else in your body.

What are the symptoms of lymphadenitis?

The main symptom of lymphadenitis is enlarged lymph nodes. A lymph node is considered enlarged if about half an inch wide.

Symptoms caused by an infected lymph node or group of nodes may include:

  • Nodes that increase in size.
  • Nodes that are painful to the touch.
  • Nodes that are soft or tangled.
  • Redness or red streaks of the skin over the nodes.
  • Nodules that are filled with pus (an abscess).
  • The fluid drains from the nodes to the skin.

The symptoms of lymphadenitis may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Go to the doctor’s office to have your condition diagnosed.

How is lymphadenitis diagnosed?

If you have lymphadenitis, the essential parts of your diagnosis are usually your history and the physical exam performed by your healthcare provider.

You may be asked about your symptoms, such as chills and fever, about any recent travel, breaks in your skin, and current contact with cats or other animals.

Then, during the physical exam, your healthcare provider will look for signs of infection near the enlarged lymph nodes.

These tests may be necessary to help make the diagnosis:

  • Blood tests to look for infection.
  • Take a sample of lymph node tissue or fluid from inside the lymph node to study under a microscope.
  • Placing fluid from the lymph node in culture to see what kinds of germs grow.

How is lymphadenitis treated?

Your healthcare provider will discover the best treatment based on the following:

  • How old are you?
  • Your general health and medical history.
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medications, procedures, or therapies.
  • How long the condition is expected to last.
  • Your opinion or preference.

The exact type of treatment depends on the infection that has spread to the lymph nodes.

Once the infection has spread to some lymph nodes, it can spread quickly to others and other parts of your body, so it is essential to find the cause of the infection and begin treatment quickly.

Treatment for lymphadenitis may include:

  • Antibiotics are taken by mouth or injection to fight an infection caused by bacteria.
  • Medicine to control pain and fever.
  • Medication to reduce swelling.
  • Surgery to drain a lymph node that has filled with pus.

Can lymphadenitis be prevented?

The best way to prevent lymphadenitis is to see your healthcare provider at the first sign of any infection or if you notice a tender swelling that feels like a small lump under the skin.

Ensure to clean and use antiseptic on any scratches or breaks on your skin, and always practice good hygiene.

Living with lymphadenitis

Take all of your medications exactly as prescribed and keep all of your follow-up appointments. Do not use over-the-counter medicines without first consulting your healthcare provider.

Cooling the compressed and elevating the affected part of your body can help relieve pain and swelling while your medications do their job.

In most cases, lymphadenitis clears up quickly with proper treatment, but it may take longer to clear up the swollen lymph node. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider if your lymphadenitis symptoms return.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms.