What It Really Means When Your Lymph Nodes Swell

Lymph nodes are small glands throughout the body that play an important role in fighting infection (via MedicalNewsToday). Swollen lymph nodes are quite common and usually signal a relatively harmless infection like the common cold. However, they may also be a sign of a more serious medical condition like an immune disorder or rarely, a type of cancer.

There are hundreds of lymph nodes throughout the body that filter fluids, waste materials, and germs. Areas where you may notice swollen lymph nodes include the neck, under the jaw, under the armpits, and around the groin. You can check to see if lymph nodes are swollen by gently pressing around these areas. If they are tender to the touch, they are likely inflamed. Sometimes, lymph nodes will appear larger than usual.

If swollen lymph nodes accompany a runny nose and sore throat, it is most likely caused by a viral infection like the common cold. Other common infections that may cause swollen lymph nodes include strep throat, an ear or tooth infection, measles, mononucleosis, a skin infection like cellulitis, and HIV (via Mayo Clinic). Less common infections that may be responsible include tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, and certain sexually transmitted infections like syphilis. Immune system disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis may also lead to swollen lymph nodes. In rare cases, swollen lymph nodes may be a sign of certain cancers like lymphoma and leukemia.

When to see a doctor for swollen lymph nodes

In many cases, swollen lymph nodes will return to normal when the condition that is causing it, such as a cold or minor infection, goes away. However, you should go see your doctor if lymph nodes are swollen and there's no other sign of an infection or they continue to swell bigger for two to four weeks (via Cleveland Clinic). Additionally, seek care if your lymph nodes feel hard or rubbery or they don't move if you push them or if you also have a persistent fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss. If you are having difficulty breathing or swallowing, go to the nearest emergency room.

Treatment for swollen lymph nodes will depend on the cause. For viral infections, you will typically have to let it run its course, as there are usually no good  treatments available for a virus. In certain cases, like pink eye or tinea, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication or antibiotic to help clear the infection. More serious conditions that can cause swollen lymph nodes, like autoimmune diseases or cancer, will require more aggressive treatment. Your doctor will work with you to come up with a treatment plan.