Lymph Nodes in Neck

Swollen glands or lymph nodes in neck indicate that the body is trying to fight an ongoing infection or illness. Lymph nodes are small, bean-like tissues that are part of your lymphatic system. They trap viruses, bacteria and other harmful substances circulating in the body.

Besides the neck, lymph nodes are also found in other area of the body, such as the armpits, behind the ears, and in the groin. Your tonsils are also lymphatic tissues that swell when infection occurs.

Normally you cannot feel your lymph nodes in the neck. However, when you are sick, you can feel them swell and you can feel them as soft, round or oval tissues that may be tender to touch. These lumps are usually movable and the skin overlying them may be red and warm. In some cases, the lymph nodes become hard and immovable but not painful or tender. These need further evaluation by your doctor, as these may indicate more serious illness.

Causes of Swollen Lymph Nodes in Neck

Lymph nodes help the body to fight disease or infection, and in the process, they become swollen or inflamed. However, when the infection and inflammation subside, they return to their normal size. If they remain swollen and hard even in the absence of obvious infection, further medical evaluation may be necessary.

The common causes of swollen lymph nodes in neck include the following:

1. Strep Throat

Throat infection caused by strep or tonsillitis can cause lymph nodes in the neck to become swollen and tender to touch. This is often accompanied by difficulty in swallowing, fever and pain.

Treatment usually includes antibiotics to kill the bacteria and over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve fever and pain.

2. Tooth Abscess

A tooth abscess is an infected area in the root of the tooth where pus develops when bacteria enter the gum. This may be caused by a decayed tooth, periodontal disease where the gum separates from the tooth or trauma to the gum or tooth. A tooth abscess can result in pain, fever, sensitivity to hot food and swollen lymph nodes in neck.

Treatment usually involves the use of antibiotics and pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen. The dentist may also recommend rinsing your mouth with warm salt water to relieve your discomfort.

3. Lymphoma

This condition is a type of cancer involving the lymphatic system, which can cause lymph nodes in neck to swell. There are two major types: Hodgkin's lymphoma, which the most common type, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Lymph node biopsy is needed to diagnose the disease. The enlarged neck nodes are not painful.

Treatment usually involves radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery, which are needed to destroy cancer cells. Stem cell transplant is another option for treatment, which helps to replace abnormal bone marrow cells with healthy young cells after being treated with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Alternative medicine helps in reducing stress and coping with the side effects of cancer therapy. This includes acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy, meditation and other relaxation techniques.

4. Tonsillitis

Inflammation of your tonsils at the back of the throat leads to swollen tonsils, difficulty swallowing, sore throat, and tender, swollen lymph nodes in neck. It is usually caused by a virus, but bacteria may also be the culprit.

Treatment involves the use of antibiotics for bacterial infection and anti-inflammatory drugs. In some cases where tonsillitis becomes a recurrent problem and antibiotics do not seem to work, surgery may be an option to prevent complications.

Home remedies include:

  • Rest and plenty of sleep.
  • Taking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Taking warm liquids and cold treats to soothe sore throat.
  • Gargling with salt water.
  • Humidifying the air or sitting in your steamy bathroom.
  • Sucking on lozenges.
  • Avoid throat irritants like cigarettes.

5. Mononucleosis/Mono

This is a common condition caused by a virus called the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It usually affects young people and leaves them feeling weak and tired for weeks or even months. It is also called the "kissing disease" because it spreads through saliva, mucus and tears. Symptoms include high fever, sore throat, weakness and swollen lymph nodes in neck. Sometimes the spleen can also become swollen, causing abdominal pain.

Treatment involves getting plenty of rest, taking pain relievers and gargling with salt water. Contact sports and heavy lifting must be avoided to protect the spleen.

6. Other Causes

  • Swelling of lymph nodes in neck may also due to:
  • Common colds
  • Skin infection
  • Ear infection
  • Upper respiratory tract infection
  • Tuberculosis
  • Side effect of certain drugs or vaccine

When to See a Doctor

It is advisable for you to consult a doctor when lymph nodes in neck are accompanied by:

  • High fever
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Red skin overlying the swollen lymph nodes

Lymph nodes that are larger than one inch and those that are very tender or hard, or do not improve after a month need to be evaluated by a doctor immediately.

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