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Medical News Today: What to know about swollen cervical lymph nodes

The lymphatic system is a network of organs and tissues that helps support immunity. The lymph nodes are tiny, kidney-shaped structures that act as filters within this system. Their role is to trap and kill viruses and bacteria before these pathogens can return to the bloodstream.

Lymph nodes exist in different areas of the body, including the neck, or “cervical,” region. Nodes in this area are called “cervical lymph nodes.”

Sometimes, the cervical lymph nodes may swell. This article outlines the potential causes of this swelling, as well as information on treatment options and when to see a doctor.

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An infection is a possible cause of swollen cervical lymph nodes.

Cervical lymph nodes are located in the sides and back of the neck. These glands are usually very small. However, when a lymph node is greater than 1 centimeter in diameter, it is enlarged.

The cervical lymph nodes sit deep inside the neck. For this reason, most people without medical training are unable to feel them, even when they are swollen. However, a doctor may be able to feel one or more bumps beneath the skin when examining the neck region.

In some cases, a person with swollen cervical lymph nodes may experience pain and swelling in the neck area.

Many conditions can cause swollen cervical lymph nodes. Each cause is usually accompanied by additional symptoms.

Some possible causes of swollen cervical lymph nodes include:

Infection

Infection is one of the most common causes of swollen lymph nodes anywhere in the body.

When there is an infection somewhere in the body, the lymph nodes in that area fill with white blood cells. The white blood cells then start to destroy the pathogens responsible for the infection.

The accumulation of white blood cells in the lymph nodes is what causes them to swell.

Some common infections that may lead to swollen cervical lymph nodes include:

Additional signs of infection depend on the specific illness but may include:

Lymph nodes that swell as a result of infection are usually painful when a person touches them. However, they also tend to return to their normal size once the infection clears.

Cancer

Less commonly, swollen cervical lymph nodes may be a sign of cancer. Cancers that affect the lymph nodes are called lymphomas. These cancers typically cause swelling of the lymph nodes in more than one area of the body.

There are two main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma may develop in lymph nodes anywhere in the body, whereas Hodgkin lymphoma tends to develop in the neck, chest, or armpits.

These two conditions share the following symptoms:

A person who experiences any of these symptoms in addition to enlarged lymph nodes should see their doctor. Hodgkin lymphoma is highly treatable if a person receives a diagnosis and starts undergoing treatment in the early stages.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is less treatable, but this is because doctors may not be able to diagnose it until it has reached an advanced stage.

HIV

HIV is a common cause of swollen lymph nodes. The nodes are particularly prone to swelling in the early, or “acute,” stage of HIV. This is when the body begins fighting the infection.

HIV can cause swelling of the lymph nodes anywhere in the body. However, it most commonly causes swelling in the cervical lymph nodes.

A 2016 study investigated lymph node abnormalities in 100 participants with HIV and swollen lymph nodes. Of the participants, 60% had swelling in the cervical lymph nodes.

Some additional symptoms of HIV include:

Medication side effects

Rarely, swollen lymph nodes can occur as a side effect of a medication. When medication is the cause, swelling may develop in any of the nodes, including the cervical lymph nodes.

Though rare, antiseizure medications and chemotherapy drugs such as granulocyte colony stimulating factor may cause swelling of the lymph nodes.

A doctor can usually detect a swollen cervical lymph node by feeling a person’s neck. Additional tests are often necessary to determine the size of the node and whether or not any other lymph nodes are swollen.

Diagnosing the exact cause of the swollen lymph nodes can be more difficult. To aid the diagnosis, a doctor will ask about the person’s symptoms and medical history. They may also order the following diagnostic tests:

If necessary, the doctor may also perform a biopsy of the cervical lymph nodes to check for the presence of cancer cells.

The treatment options for swollen lymph nodes depend on the underlying cause, as outlined below:

Infectious causes

A swollen lymph node usually occurs as a result of infection. In such cases, the lymph node should return to its normal size once the infection has cleared.

Swollen lymph nodes typically do not require treatment unless they are painful. However, if the symptoms are bothersome, the following home remedies may help:

  • applying a warm compress several times per day to ease the soreness
  • taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications to reduce discomfort
  • getting plenty of rest, which helps the body fight off the infection

If symptoms persist or worsen despite home treatment, a person should see their doctor. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help clear the underlying infection.

Cancer

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Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are possible treatments for lymphoma.
Image credit: Coronation Dental Specialty Group, 2009.

The treatments for Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma depend on several factors, including:

  • the type of lymphoma a person has
  • the stage the cancer is at
  • the person’s overall health

Some potential treatment options include:

HIV

A person with HIV may receive antiretroviral medications to help keep the virus under control. These drugs work by reducing the amount of the virus in a person’s blood and bodily fluids.

In most cases, swollen cervical lymph nodes indicate that the body is fighting an infection. Treatment is not usually necessary, since the node should return to its normal size once the infection clears.

However, a person should see a doctor if there are no other obvious signs of infection present. This could indicate that the swelling is due to another cause, such as cancer or HIV.

The following symptoms should prompt a person to see their doctor:

  • pain and swelling that lasts for longer than a few days
  • additional symptoms, such as fever, unexpected weight loss, or fatigue
  • a swollen cervical lymph node that is hard and painless
  • a rapid change in the size of the lymph node
  • swelling in more than one area of lymph nodes, such as in the neck and the groin

Swollen cervical lymph nodes are common, and they do not usually indicate a serious medical condition. In most cases, swelling is a temporary response to an infection.

Sometimes, however, swollen lymph nodes might signal a more serious underlying condition. A person should see their doctor if the swelling persists, worsens, or is accompanied by other symptoms.

A hard, painless cervical lymph node also requires prompt medical attention.

The treatment of swollen cervical lymph nodes depends on the underlying cause. A person can ask their doctor about the treatment options available to them.


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