Lymph nodes, or lymph glands, are small, oval-shaped organs that contain immune cells to attack and kill foreign invaders, such as viruses. They are an important part of the body’s immune system.
Lymph nodes are found in various parts of the body, including the neck, armpits, and groin. They are linked by lymphatic vessels, which carry lymph (a clear fluid containing white blood cells) and dead and diseased tissue for disposal) throughout the body. The primary function of lymph nodes is to harbor the body’s disease-fighting cells.
When you are sick and your lymph nodes send out disease-fighting cells and compounds, they may become inflamed or painful. The condition of having inflamed lymph nodes is referred to as lymphadenitis.
Lymph node inflammation can occur for a variety of reasons. Any infection or virus, including the common cold, can cause your lymph nodes to swell. Cancer–including blood cancer–can also cause lymph node inflammation.
Lymph node inflammation can cause a variety of symptoms, depending on the cause of the swelling and the location of the swollen lymph nodes.
Common symptoms accompanying lymph node inflammation include:
- upper respiratory symptoms, such as a fever, runny nose, or sore throat
- tender, swollen lymph glands in the neck, armpits, and groin
- limb swelling (could indicate lymph system blockage)
- night sweats
- hardening and expansion of the lymph nodes (could indicate the presence of a tumor)
A doctor typically diagnoses lymph node inflammation through physical examination. The doctor will feel around the location of various lymph nodes to check for swelling or sensitivity. He or she may also ask you about any associated symptoms, such as those listed above.
Your doctor may order blood tests to check for infections and X-rays or CT scans to look for tumors or sources of infection.
Because a wide range of conditions can cause lymph node inflammation, your doctor may request a biopsy. A lymph node biopsy is a short procedure in which the doctor removes a sample of lymph tissue. A pathologist (a doctor who examines tissue samples and interprets lab results) will test this sample. A biopsy is often the most reliable way to ascertain why lymph node inflammation has occurred.
Treatment for lymph node inflammation is determined by its cause. In some cases, no treatment may be necessary. For example, treatment is unlikely to be recommended for healthy adults whose bodies are already conquering the infection, or for children, whose active immune systems can result in frequent swelling. If treatment is required, it can vary from self-treatment to surgery and other therapies.
Your doctor is likely to advise using a fever-reducing painkiller, such as ibuprofen, along with a warm compress. Elevating the swollen area can also help to relieve inflammation.
In other cases, a course of antibiotics may be used to help the body fight the infection that is causing lymph node swelling.
If a lymph node itself becomes infected, an abscess (a collection of pus) may form. Swelling will usually go down quickly when the abscess is drained. Your doctor will drain the abscess by numbing the area and making a small cut that allows the infected pus to escape. The area may be packed with gauze to insure healing.
If your lymph node swelling is due to a cancerous tumor, there are a number of treatment options. These include surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, and radiation. Your doctor will discuss each of these options, including their pros and cons, before starting your treatment.