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What can an swollen lymph node indicate

Swollen lymph nodes, commonly known as swollen glands usually indicate an infection or inflammation of the region in which they arise, although they can appear due to a variety of reasons, from a simple skin irritation, infection, immunity diseases, use of medication or even cancer.

Lymph nodes are spread throughout the body, as they are part of the lymphatic system, an important part of the immune system, because they filter the blood and help to eliminate harmful microorganisms. However, when they are swollen, they are often visible or palpable in some specific regions, such as the groin, armpit, and neck.

Usually, swollen lymph nodes have benign and transient causes, and they are usually a few millimeters in diameter, disappearing in a period of about 3 to 30 days. However, if they grow more than 2.25 cm, last longer than 30 days or are accompanied by symptoms such as weight loss and constant fever, it is important to see a general practitioner or infectologist to investigate possible causes and recommend treatment .

What can an swollen lymph node indicate

What can cause enlarged lymph nodes

There are various reasons why lymph nodes become swollen, so it is difficult to pinpoint only one cause. However, some possible causes are:

1. In the neck

Lymph nodes in the cervical region, those located under the mandible, behind the ears and the nape of the neck, can generally become swollen due to changes in the airways and the head region, such as:

  • Respiratory tract infections, such as pharyngitis, colds, flu, mononucleosis, otitis and influenza;
  • Conjunctivitis;
  • Skin infections such as folliculitis of the scalp, inflamed acne;
  • Infections of the mouth and teeth, such as herpes, cavities, gingivitis and periodontitis;
  • Less common infections, such as lymph node tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, cat scratch disease or atypical mycobacterioses, although theses types are rare, they may also cause swollen lymph nodes;
  • Others: some types of cancer, such as head, neck or a lymphoma, for example, autoimmune diseases or systemic diseases;

In addition, systemic infectious diseases such as rubella, dengue or Zika virus may also manifest themselves by provoking swollen lymph nodes in the neck. Learn more about diseases that can cause swollen lymph nodes in the neck

2. In the groin

The groin is the most common area where swollen lymph nodes arise and they may indicate the involvement of any part of the pelvis and lower limbs in situations such as:

  • Sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, soft cancers, donovanose, genital herpes;
  • Genital infections, such as yeast infections or other vulvovaginitis and penile infections caused by bacteria or parasites;
  • Inflammation of the pelvis and lower abdominal region, such as urinary tract infections, cervicitis or prostatitis;
  • Infections or inflammations in the legs, buttocks or feet caused by folliculitis, boils or even a simple ingrown nail;
  • Others: autoimmune diseases or systemic diseases.

In addition, since this set of lymph nodes are close to a region where there are often inflammations, minor cuts or infections, it is common to notice lymph nodes, even without symptoms.

What can an swollen lymph node indicate

3. Under the armpit

Lymph nodes on the armpits are responsible for draining the entire lymphatic circulation of the arm, chest wall and breast, so when they are swollen, they may indicate:

  • Skin infections, such as folliculitis or pyoderma;
  • Infections due to breast prostheses;
  • Autoimmune diseases.

The armpit region is also very susceptible to irritations from deodorants, hair removal techniques or cuts due to hair removal, which may also cause swollen lymph nodes.

4. Other regions

Other regions may also have enlarged lymph nodes, however, they are less common. An example is the region above the clavicle, or supraclavicular, as it is not a common area for the appearance of swollen lymph nodes. In the anterior arm region, it may indicate infections of the forearm and hand, or diseases such as lymphoma, sarcoidosis, tularemia, secondary syphilis.

5. In various regions of the body

Some situations can cause swollen lymph nodes in various parts of the body, both in the most exposed regions and in deeper regions, such as in the abdomen or thorax. This is usually due to diseases that cause systemic or generalized involvement such as HIV, tuberculosis, mononucleosis, cytomegalovirus, leptospirosis, syphilis, lupus or lymphoma, for example, in addition to the use of certain medications, such as phenytoin.

What can an swollen lymph node indicate

6. When can it be cancer

Swollen lymph nodes can be cancer when they arise in the armpit, groin, neck, or are scattered in various places on the body, have a hard consistency and do not disappear after 30 days. In this case you should go to the doctor to perform tests and discard all other possibilities. Your doctor may order more specific tests such as an ultrasound or CA 125, for example if you suspect cancer in the first appointments. A fine needle aspiration biopsy is one of the tests that can be ordered when there is a cyst composed of liquid or liquid and solid content.

After the cancer diagnosis the doctor will direct you to the most appropriate health service, and in some cases the cancer can be cured with proper treatment, so it is important to start treatment as soon as possible. Certain types of tumor can be removed through surgery and there is not always a need for treatment with radiotherapy or chemotherapy, and there are also modern medicines that are able to completely eliminate malignant cells.

CausesCharacteristicsTests your doctor may request
Respiratory illnessSwollen lymph nodes in the neck, without pain or pain the the neck or a cough.It is not always necessary.
Tooth infectionSwollen lymph nodes in the neck that affects the side that is sore and a tooth ache.It may be necessary to do an X-ray of the face or mouth

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck or clavicle that are sore and may contain pus. Most common in HIV +.

Tuberculin test, lymph node biopsy
HIV (recent infection)Several swollen glands through the body, fever, malaise, joint pain. More frequent in people with risky behaviorHIV test
STDSwollen glands in the groin, pain while urinating, vaginal discharge or in the urethra, wound in the intima.Specific STD tests
Skin infection Visible cut in the region near the swollen lymph node.Blood test to identify antibodies against the infecting micro-organism
Lupus Various swollen lymph nodes in the body, joint pain, skin sores, reddish color on the cheeks (butterfly wings).Blood tests
Leukemia Fatigue, fever, purple marks on the skin or bleeding.Hemogram,bone marrow test

Use of medication like: allopurinol, cephalosporins, penicillin, sulfonamides, atenolol, captopril, carbamazepine, phenytoin, pyrimethamine and quinidine

Recent infection with the need to take antibiotics.Doctor's chose
ToxoplasmosisSwollen glands in the neck and armpits, coryza, fever, malaise, enlarged spleen and liver. When there is suspicion of exposure to cat feces.Blood test
CancerSwollen lymph node, with or without pain, hard that does not move or can be pushed.Specific tests and biopsy.

The characteristics indicated in the table are the most common, but they may not all be present, and only the doctor can diagnose any disease, indicating the most appropriate treatment for each case.

How to cure swollen lymph nodes 

In most cases, swollen lymph nodes are harmless and do not pose a serious health problem. They are usually caused by viruses that heal spontaneously within 3 to 4 weeks without the need for specific treatment.

Lymphadenopathy does not have a specific treatment, but it is always important to know its cause. Medications like antibiotics and corticosteroids should not be used without medical advice because they may delay the diagnosis of a serious illness.

When to go to the doctor

Swollen lymph nodes are generally characterized by having a fibrous and movable consistency, measuring a few millimeters and can be painful or not. However, there may be some changes that indicate worrying illnesses, such as lymphoma, tuberculous lymph node or cancer, and some are:

  • Measure more than 2,5 cm;
  • Have a hard consistency, adhered to deep tissues and do not move;
  • Persist for more than 30 days;
  • Be accompanied by a fever that does not improve in 1 week, night sweats, weight loss or malaise;
  • Be located in the epitrochlear, supraclavicular region or scattered location throughout the body.

In this situations, it is necessary to seek a general practitioner or infectologist, so that clinical evaluation, ultrasound examination or tomography, as well as blood tests assessing infections or inflammation in the body are done. If doubt persists, a lymph node biopsy may still be required, which will show whether it has benign or malignant features.


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