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Lymphadenitis

Lymphadenitis is an infection of the lymph nodes (also called lymph glands). It is a common complication of certain bacterial infections.

Causes

The lymph system is a network of lymph nodes, lymph ducts, lymph vessels, and organs that produce and move a fluid called lymph from tissues to the bloodstream.

The lymph glands, or nodes, are small structures that filter the lymph fluid. There are many white blood cells in the lymph nodes to help fight infection.

Lymphadenitis occurs when the glands become enlarged by swelling (inflammation), often in response to bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The swollen glands are usually found near the site of an infection, tumor, or inflammation.

Lymphadenitis may occur after skin infections or other infections caused by bacteria such as Streptococcus or Staphylococcus. Sometimes it is caused by rare infections such as tuberculosis or cat scratch disease (Bartonella).

Symptoms

  • Red, tender skin over lymph node
  • Swollen, tender, or hard lymph nodes

Lymph nodes may feel rubbery if an abscess has formed or they have become inflamed.

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This includes feeling your lymph nodes and looking for signs of injury or infection around any swollen lymph nodes.

A biopsy and culture of the affected area or node may reveal the cause of the inflammation. Blood cultures may reveal spread of infection to the bloodstream.

Treatment

Lymphadenitis may spread within hours. Treatment should begin promptly.

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics to treat any infection
  • Analgesics (painkillers) to control pain
  • Anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation
  • Cool compresses to reduce inflammation and pain

Surgery may be needed to drain an abscess.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Prompt treatment with antibiotics usually leads to a complete recovery. It may take weeks, or even months, for swelling to disappear.

Possible Complications

  • Abscess formation
  • Cellulitis (a skin infection)
  • Fistulas (seen in lymphadenitis that is due to tuberculosis)
  • Sepsis (bloodstream infection)

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have symptoms of lymphadenitis.

Prevention

Good general health and hygiene are helpful in the prevention of any infection.

Alternative Names

Lymph node infection; Lymph gland infection; Localized lymphadenopathy

References

Armitage JO. Approach to the patient with lymphadenopathy and splenomegaly. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 171.

Pasternack MS, Swartz MN. Lymphadenitis and lymphangitis. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2009:chap 92.

Update Date: 5/19/2013

Updated by: Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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