Swollen Lymph Nodes: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention

They can indicate infection, often near the infected site.

In other cases, swollen lymph nodes could indicate injury, AIDS, or cancer.

What are lymph nodes?

Lymph is a clear or slightly yellowish watery fluid that:

  • Eliminates bacteria and certain types of proteins from tissues.
  • It carries fat from the small intestine.
  • It supplies the bloodstream with mature white blood cells ( lymphocytes ) produced in the bone marrow.

Lymph circulates through the body through lymphatic vessels, similar to blood vessels. White blood cells and the lymphatic system are essential parts of the immune system, helping the body kill germs, cells, or foreign matter that could cause disease.

Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures near lymphatic vessels. There are about 600 lymph nodes throughout the body, some in the deep tissues and others closer to the skin.

Node clusters are found in the neck, armpits, abdomen, and groin. (These nodules can be felt with the fingers.) Other nodules are located on the chest, arms, and legs.

Immune cells are stored within the nodes. Fluid from the surrounding tissues enters the lymph nodes through the lymph vessels or the small blood vessels in the nodes. The liquid is filtered through the nodes to eliminate infectious germs, cells, or foreign matter.

Patients affected by drug-induced lupus can present all the manifestations of systemic lupus erythematosus; however, in general terms, joint involvement and serositis are the most common, and kidney and central nervous system involvement are rare.

Fresh lymphocytes are supplied, and the fluid is sent back into the bloodstream to distribute the lymphocytes throughout the body.

The terms lymph nodes and lymph nodes are often misused to mean the same thing. Lymph nodes are not glands because they do not produce or secrete substances; they only act as filters.

What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes?

Swollen lymph nodes commonly occur when white blood cells within them have increased in response to an infection or other disease.

The number of disease-fighting cells builds rapidly, causing pressure and inflammation within the lymph nodes.

In many cases, the swollen lymph nodes will be near the site of an infection. For example, a person with strep throat may develop swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

In other cases, swollen lymph nodes may indicate lesions, lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system), AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), or a tumor that has spread to lymph nodes elsewhere in the body.

What are the symptoms of swollen lymph nodes?

In general, lymph nodes larger than 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) in diameter are considered abnormal. Swollen lymph nodes are not only enlarged, sometimes visibly but can also be painful to the touch.

A doctor should be consulted when specific symptoms occur. These include:

  • Nodes that are swollen for more than two weeks.
  • Weightloss.
  • Night sweats.
  • Long-lasting fever
  • Fatigue.
  • Complex nodes are attached to the skin or proliferate.
  • Swollen nodes near the collarbone or lower neck. Swollen nodes in this area often indicate a cancerous condition.
  • Red or inflamed skin over swollen glands.
  • Labored breathing

How are swollen lymph nodes diagnosed?

Swollen lymph nodes are not a disease; they are a symptom, usually of a controllable infection but sometimes of a more severe condition.

The term lymphadenopathy refers to abnormal lymph nodes in size, shape, or number. In “localized” lymphadenopathy, the lymph nodes in only one area are affected.

In “generalized” lymphadenopathy, enlarged lymph nodes are found in two or more separate body areas. This almost always points to a severe systemic (body-wide) disease.

Determining whether the condition is localized or generalized is a vital part of figuring out what is causing the swollen lymph nodes. To make a diagnosis, the doctor:

  • Examine the swollen nodes in terms of size; pain or tenderness when touched; consistency (either hard or rubbery); mat (if the nodes feel united or move as a unit); and location (specific diseases can be linked to where the affected nodes are located).
  • Perform a physical exam, observe all symptoms, and review the patient’s medical history.
  • Review any medications you are taking. Some medications, such as the anti-seizure drug phenytoin (Dilantin®), can cause swollen lymph nodes.
  • Consider possible risk factors, such as sexual practices, intravenous drug use, recent travel, and occupation.
  • Order blood tests, other lab tests, or scans to see if there is a suspicion of illness.
  • Take a biopsy (tissue sample) of the most significant or most abnormal node if observation and other tests do not provide a diagnosis.

Examples of conditions related to localized lymphadenopathy:

  • Conjunctivitis –  inflammation [swelling] of the lining of the inner eyelid.
  • Upper respiratory infection:  common cold, strep throat, etc.
  • Ringworm:  infection of the skin.
  • Tonsillitis:  Inflammation of the tonsils.
  • mononucleosis-like syndromes: (viral infection that causes fever, sore throat, and general fatigue.
  • Cat  Scratch Disease – Infection from a cat bite or scratch.
  • Pharyngitis:  inflammation of the pharynx or upper part of the tube leads to the stomach.
  • Lymphogranuloma venereum –  A sexually transmitted disease caused by a type of Chlamydia bacteria.
  • Chancroid:  infectious venereal ulcer.
  • Sarcoidosis:  granular wounds in the liver, lungs, skin, or lymph nodes.
  • Tularemia: an infectious disease transmitted from rodents.
  • Plague: contagious disease, usually fatal, epidemic.

Examples of conditions related to generalized lymphadenopathy:

  • Epstein-Barr virus: Herpes virus that causes infectious mononucleosis and is associated with certain types of cancer.
  • Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease acquired by contact with cats, feces, or raw or undercooked meat.
  • Cytomegalovirus –  Herpes virus infection, often in the salivary glands.
  • HIV:  human immunodeficiency virus or AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
  • Tuberculous lymphadenitis: a bacterial infection that attacks the lymph nodes.
  • Secondary syphilis: the second stage of sexually transmitted disease syphilis.
  • Hepatitis B:  infection of the blood that damages the liver.
  • Lupus erythematosus –  red, scaly patches on the face and upper body; its cause is unknown.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis:  inflammation of the joints.
  • Lymphoma:  solid tumors in the lymphatic system.
  • Leukemia:  cancer of the bone marrow.
  • Serum sickness:  overreaction of the immune system to injected proteins, such as those found in cephalosporins, penicillins, or sulfonamides.
  • Kawasaki disease: childhood disease of enlarged lymph nodes in the neck and bright red rashes on the tongue and hands.
  • Lyme disease – Bacterial inflammatory disease transmitted by tick bites.
  • Measles – is a  viral infection, especially in children, that causes fever and skin rashes.
  • Rubella –  Viral infection, also known as German measles.
  • Brucellosis –  Bacterial infection of sick animals or contaminated meat or dairy products.
  • Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection that causes fever, depression, skin rashes on the chest and abdomen, and diarrhea.
  • Still’s a disease:  juvenile arthritis.
  • Dermatomyositis – An immune system disorder that causes muscle weakness and skin rashes.
  • Amyloidosis –  hard, waxy deposits in various organs and tissues.

How are swollen lymph nodes treated?

Treatment for swollen lymph nodes depends on the cause. Antibiotics or antivirals usually clear a superficial infection in the skin or tissue, and the nodes gradually return to standard size.

After treatment, an observation period of three to four weeks is recommended to ensure no further problems.

For severe systemic infections, immune disorders, or cancer, more aggressive treatments will be needed over a more extended period.

How can swollen lymph nodes be prevented?

Steps that can help prevent swollen lymph nodes include following good health habits and avoiding drug use, risky sexual behaviors, and apparent causes of bacterial infection.

However, there is no way to guarantee that swollen lymph nodes will not occur at some point as there are many different causes.