Let’s say you happen to run your hand across your neck one day and discover a small, hard bump that didn’t used to be there. Is this a cause for concern? Is it just your body doing what it is made to do, or could this be the first sign of something serious or even deadly such as cancer? Chances are, if you suddenly notice a bump on the side of your neck or in your armpit, it is probably a swollen lymph node. The trouble is, this could indicate anything from a common cold to life-threatening disease.
What are Lymph Nodes?
Responsible for storing the white blood cells that attack invading infectious agents, your lymphatic system is an important part of your body’s immune system. Consisting of small glands called nodes that filter lymph fluid, reactions by your lymphatic system can be a reliable indicator that your body is fighting off some form of attack, even if the cause of the swelling may not be immediately obvious.
Lymph nodes are found throughout the body. The glands that are typically identified as swollen are those in or around the neck, groin, collarbone, and armpits, as these are close to the surface of the body and easier for you to notice or for your doctor to identify in a physical examination.
What Causes Swollen Glands in the Neck?
As part of your body’s immune system, swollen lymph nodes typically indicate that your body is working hard to fight infection. Other factors can contribute to swollen glands, though, including reactions to medication or more serious causes such as autoimmune disorders or even certain types of cancer.
At the mild end of the spectrum of common causes of swollen glands are various kinds of infections. These could be anything from the flu to more bothersome illnesses such as:
- sinus infections
- tooth or gum infections
- staph infections
- viral infections
- bacterial infections
- skin infections
- fungal infections
- ear infections
- strep throat
- other upper respiratory infections
While some of these illnesses are systemic and affect the entire body, several of the conditions listed above primarily affect tissues of the head and neck. Other infectious diseases cause different lymph node swelling that may not always involve the neck. Some sexually transmitted infections fall in this category. Syphilis and gonorrhea, for example, both result in swollen lymph nodes, though they typically affect the groin area more prominently than other areas of the body.
When Should I be Worried About Swollen Glands?
Swollen lymph glands could mean nothing more than a common cold, but there are occasions when swollen lymph glands accompany more than just a sore throat. If you discover that you have swollen lymph glands in conjunction with symptoms such as unexplained weight loss or night sweats that can accompany other, more worrying conditions, it may be time to talk to your doctor. Additionally, if your medical history suggests you may be at risk for certain types of cancers or autoimmune diseases, you should definitely consult a health care professional sooner rather than later.
Some of the more worrying causes of swollen lymph glands can cover a range from troubling to life-threatening diseases. Aside from cancers, swollen glands can be a symptom of:
- Lyme disease
- chicken pox
It is also possible that autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjorgen’s syndrome could be contributing to the swelling you are experiencing. These autoimmune disorders will typically be accompanied by other, noticeable symptoms, such as the joint pain characteristic of arthritis.
Cancer is the greatest worry when it comes to swollen lymph glands. These include non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a form of cancer directly affecting your lymphatic system, or other cancers throughout your body such as breast cancer. Hodgkin diseases, leukemia, and Kaposi sarcoma are all forms of cancer or malignancy that can affect your lymphatic system, resulting in swollen glands. Given the severity of these deadly conditions, seeking treatment quickly after symptoms are identified can be crucial to your overall health or even your life.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Swollen Lymph Nodes
Since swollen glands in your neck could indicate anything from the common cold to cancer, getting a proper diagnosis is crucial in understanding what you are up against. In many cases, your doctor will perform a physical examination, look for signs of other potentially worrying symptoms, and possibly order imaging such as an X-ray or CT scan.
If blood tests or imaging results indicate there may be cause for concern, your doctor may recommend taking a tissue sample from one of your swollen lymph glands in a lymph node biopsy. This allows for more thorough testing to determine whether your symptoms are part of a serious medical condition or just an indication of a passing infection.
If it turns out that you are experiencing swollen glands as a result of a simple infection such as the flu, managing pain and swelling through common over-the-counter remedies like ibuprofen or acetaminophen is often recommended.
It is also possible that lymph nodes may need to be removed if they continue to cause you trouble. The most common example of this is having your tonsils removed. If you are experiencing chronic or recurring tonsillitis, such as in the case of repeated strep throat infections, it is possible that your doctor may recommend having your tonsils removed to prevent repeated infections.
For more serious diseases such as breast cancer or lymphoma, treatment will be far more involved. In these cases, addressing the underlying condition is the priority, which could involve a wide range of treatments from tissue removal to chemotherapy. It is not uncommon for lymph glands to continue to be swollen throughout the course of treatment when malignancies are the cause.
More recently, there are indications that the novel coronavirus responsible for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also causes swelling in the lymphatic system. It has also been reported that individuals who have received some versions of the coronavirus vaccine have experienced temporary swelling and tenderness in the lymph nodes of the neck, particularly on the side of the body where the shot was administered. There is no evidence this is indicative of any reason for concern as long as the swelling disappears within a few days.
Don’t Wait to Get Treated
Finding one swollen lymph node is not likely a cause for worry. That said, if you are older, or have a history of medical conditions that indicate you could be at risk for cancer or other serious diseases, swollen glands are something you should keep an eye on. Staying in touch with your doctor could be vitally important, especially if you begin to develop other symptoms such as sudden, unexplained weight loss.
At TrustCare, we know that access to medicine when and where you need it can help make the difference in getting the treatment you need. That is why our locations are open seven days a week to help you get the advice and care you need. If you are beginning to show symptoms that seem concerning, or if it is time to get a regular checkup just to make sure everything is in good order, consider visiting one of our locations today.