Swollen lymph glands are usually a sign of infection and tend to go down when you recover. However, they can sometimes have a more serious cause and may need to be seen by a doctor.
Lymph glands (also called lymph nodes) are pea-sized lumps of tissue that contain white blood cells. These help to fight bacteria, viruses and anything else that causes infection. They are an important part of the immune system and are found throughout the body.
The glands can swell to more than a few centimetres in response to infection or disease. Swollen glands, known medically as lymphadenopathy, may be felt under the chin or in the neck, armpits or groin, where they can be found in larger clumps.
Many different types of infection can cause swollen glands, such as a cold or glandular fever. Less commonly, swollen glands may be caused by a non-infectious condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or even cancer.
When to see your GP
See your GP if you have swollen glands and:
- they haven’t gone down within a few weeks or are getting bigger
- they feel hard or don’t move when you press them
- you also have a sore throat and find it difficult to swallow or breathe
- you also have unexplained weight loss, night sweats or a persistent high temperature (fever)
- you don’t have an obvious infection and don’t feel unwell
If necessary, your GP may request some tests to help identify the cause. These can include blood tests, an ultrasound scan or computerised tomography (CT) scan, and/or a biopsy (where a small sample of fluid is taken from the swelling and tested).
Common causes of swollen glands
Swollen glands are usually caused by a relatively minor viral or bacterial infection, including:
- a cold
- glandular fever
- a throat infection
- an ear infection
- a dental abscess
- cellulitis (a skin infection)
The glands in the affected area will often become suddenly tender or painful. You may also have additional symptoms, such as a sore throat, cough, or fever.
These infections usually clear up on their own, and the swollen glands will soon go down. You will normally just need to drink plenty of fluids, rest and relieve the symptoms at home using over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
See your GP if your symptoms don’t improve within a few weeks.
Less common causes of swollen glands
Less often, swollen glands may be the result of:
- rubella – a viral infection that causes a red-pink skin rash made up of small spots
- measles – a highly infectious viral illness that causes distinctive red or brown spots on the skin
- cytomegalovirus (CMV) – a common virus spread through bodily fluids, such as saliva and urine
- tuberculosis (TB) – a bacterial infection spread that causes a persistent cough
- syphilis – a bacterial infection usually caught by having sex with someone who is infected
- cat scratch disease – a bacterial infection caused by a scratch from an infected cat
- HIV – a virus that attacks the immune system and weakens your ability to fight infections
- lupus – where the immune system starts to attack the body’s joints, skin, blood cells and organs
- rheumatoid arthritis – where the immune system starts to attack the tissue lining the joints
- sarcoidosis – where small patches of red and swollen tissue, called granulomas, develop in the organs of the body
Could it be cancer?
Occasionally, swollen glands can be a sign of cancer that has started elsewhere in the body and spread to the lymph nodes, or a type of cancer affecting the white blood cells, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma or chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.
Swollen glands are more likely to be caused by cancer if they:
- don’t go away within a few weeks and slowly get bigger
- are painless and firm or hard when you touch them
- occur with other symptoms, such as night sweats and weight loss
See your GP if your glands have been swollen for more than a couple of weeks. The swelling is probably the result of a non-cancerous condition, but it’s best to be sure by getting a proper diagnosis.
What is the treatment for swollen lymph glands?
The treatment depends on the cause. Swollen lymph glands are like a marker of various conditions, all with different outlooks and treatments. So, for example, the common cause is due to a viral infection.
In this case no specific treatment may be advised and the lymph glands will normally go back to normal after a week or so. However, swollen lymph glands caused by a cancer, lymphoma or leukaemia may need extensive treatment.
What should I do if I find swollen lymph glands?
Swollen lymph glands due to viral infections are common. For example, lymph glands in the neck may swell up and down if you have frequent throat infections.
This is of little concern. Swollen lymph glands are more of a concern if there is no apparent reason for them to swell. Tell your doctor if:
You find swollen lymph glands and you do not know why they have swollen. For example, you do not have an infection to cause them to swell.
Swollen lymph glands due to an infection do not go down again within two weeks.