Lymph nodes are found throughout your body. They are an important part of your immune system. Lymph nodes help your body recognize and fight germs, infections, and other foreign substances.
The term "swollen glands" refers to enlargement of one or more lymph nodes. The medical name for swollen lymph nodes is lymphadenopathy.
In a child, a node is considered enlarged if it is more than 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) wide.
Common areas where the lymph nodes can be felt (with the fingers) include:
- Neck (there is a chain of lymph nodes on either side of the front of the neck, both sides of the neck, and down each side of the back of the neck)
- Under the jaw and chin
- Behind the ears
- On the back of the head
Infections are the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes. Infections that can cause them include:
- Abscessed or impacted tooth
- Ear infection
- Colds, flu, and other infections
- Mouth sores
- Sexually transmitted illness
- Skin infections
Immune or autoimmune disorders that can cause swollen lymph nodes are:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Cancers that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:
Other cancers may also cause this problem.
Certain medications can cause swollen lymph nodes, including:
- Seizure medicines such as phenytoin
- Typhoid immunization
Which lymph nodes are swollen depends on the cause and the body parts involved. Swollen lymph nodes that appear suddenly and are painful are usually due to injury or infection. Slow, painless swelling may be due to cancer or a tumor.
Painful lymph nodes are generally a sign that your body is fighting an infection. The soreness usually goes away in a couple days, without treatment. The lymph node may not return to its normal size for several weeks.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your doctor if:
- Your lymph nodes do not get smaller after several weeks or they continue to get larger.
- They are red and tender.
- They feel hard, irregular, or fixed in place.
- You have fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss.
- Any node in a child is larger than 1 centimeter (a little less than 1/2 inch) in diameter.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your doctor or nurse will perform a physical examination and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Examples of questions that may be asked include when the swelling began, if it came on suddenly, and whether any nodes are painful when pressed.
The following tests may be done:
- Blood tests, including liver function tests, kidney function tests, and CBC with differential
- Lymph node biopsy
- Chest x-ray
- Liver-spleen scan
Treatment depends on the cause of the swollen nodes.
Swollen glands; Glands - swollen; Lymph nodes - swollen; Lymphadenopathy
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.
Tower RL, Camitta BM. Lymphadenopathy. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 484.
Update Date 5/11/2014
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.