Lymph nodes help your body fight off infections by trapping viruses, bacteria and other invaders before they reach other body parts. Swollen lymph nodes sometimes simply indicate that your lymph nodes are hard at work doing their job, but they can also be a sign of more concerning health problems such as strep throat and even head and neck cancer. Find out how to tell the difference and when to see a doctor for help.
What Is a Lymph Node?
Your lymphatic system is made up of lymph nodes, organs and other vessels that help remove waste and harmful materials from the body. A lymph node is a small round or bean-shaped cluster that creates antibodies and traps germs. You have lymph nodes throughout your body, but you’re probably most familiar with the lymph nodes in your neck right below your jaw line which your doctor checks when you’re feeling ill.
Symptoms that Accompany Swollen Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes are usually so small that you can’t feel them, but they swell to the size of a pea or kidney bean when you’re sick. When you have swollen lymph nodes, you may also notice:
- Tenderness or pain in the lymph nodes
- A runny nose or sore throat
- Fever and sweating
Causes of Swollen Lymph Nodes
Since lymph nodes work in groups to trap bacteria and viruses from specific areas of your body, the location of the swollen lymph nodes may indicate where the illness lies. If your lymph nodes are swollen, you may have an infection such as:
- Strep throat
- An ear infection
- An abscessed tooth
- A skin or wound infection
Other conditions that swollen lymph nodes could result from are:
- HIV or another sexually transmitted disease
- A disorder of the immune system
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Cancers such as Lymphoma or Leukemia, or head and neck cancer
When to See a Doctor
Swollen lymph nodes often return to normal when a minor virus goes away, but if your lymph nodes continue to stay swollen after two weeks, it’s important to call a doctor in case you need antibiotics or further testing. If you do not seek medical attention and an infection is present that requires intervention, there is a risk of forming an abscess or a bloodstream infection, which is very dangerous.
Here are reasons to call the doctor about swollen lymph nodes before that two-week mark:
- You have not been sick and have no other symptoms
- They keep growing larger
- They don’t move around when pushed
- They are firm or rubbery
- You have a persistent fever or unexplained weight loss
- You have trouble swallowing or breathing (seek emergency care, if this is the case).
Diagnosing and Treating Lymph Node Problems
To diagnose what might be causing your swollen lymph nodes, your doctor will need your medical history and will perform a physical exam. He may order blood tests, imaging scans, and take a biopsy if necessary. If a bacterial infection is suspected, he will prescribe antibiotics. If your swollen lymph nodes are due to a condition such as lupus, arthritis or cancer, treatment will be geared toward that condition.
Sound Health Physicians are Experts in Diagnosing Conditions of the Lymphatic System
Our doctors treat patients with swollen lymph nodes all the time, and whether the cause is strep throat, ear infections, or head and neck cancer, we develop specialized treatment plans for each individual patient. Schedule an appointment with one of our ENT doctors at (314) 729-0077 in MO or (618) 235-3687 in IL.