Swollen lymph nodes aren’t typically a cause of concern. Most of the time this is just your body’s way of fighting an infection. Much like a warning device or an alarm system, it gets triggered when something is off.
They usually go away on their own when your body has gotten rid of the infection. The lymph nodes will shrink back to their normal size when your body is healthy again. However, not all infections can trigger swollen lymph nodes. There are times that your body might have an infection or inflammation but your lymph nodes are not affected.
In some cases, they can also be a sign of a more serious medical condition. It is important to pay close attention to other symptoms you are feeling so you can determine if you need to pay a visit to your doctor.
Swollen lymph nodes are often accompanied by other symptoms including fever, colds, sore throat, and body fatigue. In more serious cases of chronic inflammation, swollen lymph nodes will remain hard, swollen, or painful until the underlying condition has been treated.
Read on below to learn more about the common causes of swollen lymph nodes and what you can do about it.
What Are Lymph Nodes?
Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped lumps of tissue that contain mostly white blood cells. They are part of the body’s immune system and help fight infection and disease.
There are about 600 lymph nodes scattered all over your body. They are connected to each other through lymphatic vessels that run through the body much like veins. Some are single nodes, while others are more closely connected. Lymph node clusters can be found in the neck, armpit, chest, abdomen, and groin area.
The lymphatic system has several functions and all of them are important to keep the body functioning in good health.
Here are some of the primary functions of the lymphatic system:
Protects the body from infection.
The lymphatic system is part of the immune system, which is responsible for protecting your body against foreign invaders, inflammation, and infection. Lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, that attacks and destroys harmful invaders like bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Maintains the body’s fluid levels.
Another crucial job of the lymphatic system is regulating your fluid levels. The fluids in the bloodstream sometimes leak out into tissues. Lymph capillaries pick up excess fluid and return them to the venous blood. When the fluids are not drained, this causes swelling of the tissues and leads to edema or lymphoedema.
Helps absorb fat from the digestive tract.
The lymphatic system also helps absorb fat from the digestive system. There are several lymph capillaries found inside the small intestine. While the blood capillaries absorb the nutrients, the lymph capillaries are tasked to absorb fats.
Common Causes of Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph nodes are one of the telltale signs that your body is fighting an infection or there is something amiss with your lymphatic system. When the body has an infection or inflammation, the lymphatic system produces more lymphocytes and the nodes tend to swell or feel tender when touched.
Here are some of the most common causes of swollen lymph nodes:
1. Common Cold
The common cold happens when the body catches a virus that causes inflammation in the nose and throat. They can happen any time of the year but are most common during rainy or winter seasons.
Symptoms of a common cold include a low-grade fever, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, cough, and fatigue
When you have a cold, the body fights off the infection and produces more antibodies and infection-fighting cells. This can cause swollen lymph nodes on the side of the neck or under the jaw.
Similar to the common cold the flu is also caused by a virus. Compared to the cold, however, influenza is worse and symptoms are more intense. The flu can also last for weeks and cause serious health complications like pneumonia.
One of the most common ways to distinguish a cold from the flu is by temperature. Most colds don’t present with a fever, while flu commonly comes with fever and body aches.
Infection in the body is another cause of swollen lymph nodes. When there is an active infection or inflammation in your body, the lymphatic system goes on guard mode and works double-time to produce white blood cells to fight off the infection.
The particular cluster of lymph nodes that swell will depend on where the infection is present. Lymph nodes around the collarbone may swell from infection on the lung, neck, or abdomen. Swollen nodes on the groin may indicate an infection in the foot, leg, or genitals, while swollen lymph nodes on the side of the neck can be an infection in the mouth, head, or neck.
Mononucleosis (also known as Mono) is a type of infection that is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus that is spread through saliva. This is also called the “kissing disease” because of its method of transmission. It is more common in teens and young adults.
Common symptoms associated with mono include fatigue, drowsiness, fever, rashes, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck or armpit.
Although rare, sometimes swollen lymph nodes can also signify a more serious health issue like HIV.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (or HIV) is a type of virus that attacks the cells of the immune system, making it difficult for the body to fight off infection.
When the body first senses the virus, it can trigger a flu-like response as it tries to fight off the virus. Swollen lymph nodes can appear on the neck, groin, or armpit.
Swollen lymph nodes can also be a sign of cancer. This could mean that cancer has spread to the lymph nodes from the affected organ. When cancer cells break away from a tumor, they can travel through the lymphatic system and end up in the lymph nodes, causing swelling.
There is also a type of cancer that starts in the lymphocytes found in the nodes. This is called lymphoma. Swollen lymph nodes related to cancer usually don’t shrink back to normal size, until the cancer has been treated.
How To Detect Swollen Lymph Nodes
Finding swollen lymph nodes can mean early detection of a serious condition and it can potentially save your life. While it is always best to go to a doctor, you can do this yourself too.
Self-assessment can be done to detect a swollen lymph node. Because they are hard and swollen, they are often easy to detect.
To check your lymph nodes, gently press around your neck, under the jaw, on the collarbone, armpit, and groin area. Swollen lymph nodes will feel like round lumps that are the size of a pea or sometimes a grape. They are often tender to the touch or even painful.
If you are not comfortable doing it yourself, you can also go to the doctor’s office to have it checked. Typically, a doctor will perform a physical exam to feel and detect if any of your lymph nodes are swollen. You will also be asked for your medical history and if you are feeling any other symptoms.
Swollen Lymph Nodes Treatment
When swollen lymph nodes have been detected, the next course is to determine the cause of the swelling. The treatment will, of course, depend on the root cause or underlying problem.
To determine the cause of swollen lymph nodes, the hospital will need to perform a variety of tests. The doctor will be checking your lymph nodes by feeling them, determining if they are really swollen or not.
After the physical examination, additional tests may be needed to find out the root of your health problem. Blood tests, x-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, or an MRI can be performed to check the state of your body. In some cases, a biopsy may be necessary to check if cancer is present.
When the doctor has figured out the cause of your swollen lymph nodes, you will be prescribed with the proper medication. Antibiotics are often needed to treat the infection. Anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs can also help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
The usual course of treatment and medication is 2 – 3 weeks. In more serious cases, it may take a couple of months and multiple visits to the hospital to clear an infection or a chronic inflammation.
In mild cases of infection, swollen lymph nodes can also shrink back to their regular size without the need for treatment or medication.
How To Prevent Swollen Lymph Nodes
Can you prevent your lymph nodes from swelling? The thing is – you shouldn’t be preventing swollen lymph nodes from happening at all. They are a sign that your body is fighting an infection. It is your body’s way of telling you to check what’s going on inside your body or to slow down and take a rest.
But, while you can’t prevent lymph nodes from swelling, you can do certain steps to prevent or avoid catching a virus or infection.
Here are some things you can do to protect your body:
Wash your hands frequently.
Most viruses travel through air or droplets that can stay on surfaces for a long time. You can unknowingly bring the virus home by touching a dirty surface. To avoid this, always wash your hands with an antibacterial soap. Use proper handwashing techniques to make sure your hands are thoroughly clean.
Boost your immune system.
A weak immune system is more prone to getting viral infections and other health issues. Your immune system is your best guard against bacteria, viruses, and other harmful elements. Boost your immune system by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding stress.
Get the right amount of sleep.
Lack of sleep can lead to a whole host of health problems, including infection and chronic inflammation. Experts advise getting 7 – 9 hours of sleep every day. Your body goes on repair mode when you are asleep, fighting off infection and getting rid of the toxins in your system. Making sure you get quality sleep every night will decrease your risk of getting sick.
Have regular check-ups.
Stay on top of your health by having frequent check-ups. Delaying going to the doctor, especially when you are feeling symptoms, will only make matters worse. It is best to be aware of what’s happening in your body, so you can take necessary precautions.
Home Treatment For Swollen Lymph Nodes
If you are currently having trouble with swollen lymph nodes, there are also steps you can take for relief:
Apply a warm compress to the areas affected.
If your lymph nodes are feeling painful or tender to the touch, apply a warm compress gently on the affected areas. This can help bring down the swelling temporarily.
Drink a pain reliever.
Drink a pain reliever to help with the discomfort. An aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen work well in treating pain-related symptoms.
Get plenty of rest.
When your body is fighting off infection, it needs plenty of rest. Make sure to get enough sleep and drink plenty of fluids to keep yourself hydrated.
Go to the doctor.
If your swollen lymph nodes aren’t going away, it is best to have yourself checked by a physician. Make sure to take note of other symptoms you are feeling and report them to your doctor.
Swollen lymph nodes are not typically dangerous. They are, however, a sign that the body is fighting an infection. They often go away on their own and most won’t even need treatment. But, there are also times when swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of a serious illness. While you can’t prevent the body from getting swollen lymph nodes, there are steps you can take to avoid getting infection and inflammation. It is always best to get checked by a doctor to treat the underlying condition that caused swollen lymph nodes.