A swollen neck can emerge as a result of inflammation or infections, like a cold, flu, mononucleosis, otitis or tonsils. These types of conditions can lead to lymph node inflammation in the neck. This type of chronic inflammation can also be a sign of cancer.
Depending on the underlying cause, a swollen neck can be accompanied by symptoms like increased temperature in the area, redness, sensitivity upon palpation, pus in the area and fever.
A swollen neck that persists for longer than 3 days or presents with other symptoms should be assessed by a family doctor or infectious disease specialist. The doctor will assess the presenting symptoms and characteristics associated with the condition to confirm a diagnosis and initiate treatment as appropriate.
What causes neck swelling?
A swollen neck is often the result of:
1. Viral infections
A viral infection, like a cold, flu mononucleosis, dengue, Zika or cytomegalovirus, can cause neck swelling due to swelling of lymph nodes. This is a normal immune system response that is employed to help fight infections.
Swollen lymph nodes can be noted anywhere along the neck, and be associated with other symptoms, like sore throat, fever or general malaise.
What to do: You should rest and increase your fluid intake, as neck swelling typically resolves once the virus is eliminated. Depending on the type of infection, the doctor may prescribe analgesics or anti-inflammatories, to help relieve discomfort.
2. Bacterial infections
Some bacterial infections, like otitis, sinusitis, tonsillitis or pharyngitis, can also lead to lymph node swelling on the neck, behind the ears, in the jaw or the back of the head. This can make your neck appear more swollen.
These infections are normally accompanied by other symptoms, like fever, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, ear ache, coughing, facial pain or pus in the throat or ears.
What to do: Treatment for bacterial infections should be directed by a family doctor or ENT specialist, who may prescribe antibiotics depending on the type of bacteria causing infection.
3. Cervical adenitis
Cervical adenitis is characterized by inflammation of the lymph nodes, which can occur with autoimmune diseases, medications, cancers or the neck or head, or lymphoma.
This condition can lead to swelling of the lymph nodes around the affected one, in addition to pain, redness, skin sensitivity or fever.
What to do: Treatment should be oriented by a family doctor, depending on the cause of inflammation. The doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, antivirals, corticosteroid or even biological therapy. Inflammation caused by cancer may require surgical removal of the affected glands or the tumor causing the cancer, followed by sessions of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Learn more about what causes swollen lymph nodes and the symptoms associated with them.
4. Thyroid abnormalities
Some thyroid changes, like hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, can cause neck swelling, otherwise known as a goiter. It is characterized by an increase in thyroid gland size in an attempt to compensate for thyroid hormone irregularities.
Read about symptoms of thyroid problems and complete our online symptom checker if you suspect you may have a thyroid condition.
What to do: It is important to see an endocrinologist, who will order image testing to confirm a diagnosis. Treatment is guided by the underlying cause of the goiter, and may involve iodine treatment or hormonal replacement therapy.
Mumps is a viral infection caused by a virus in the Paramyxoviridae family, which lodges in the parotid, submandibular and sublingual glands. It leads to facial swelling, particularly on the sides of the neck.
In addition to neck swelling, other symptoms of mumps include fever, difficulty swallowing, facial pain and pain in the neck area.
What to do: Treatment for mumps is aimed at relieving symptoms. The doctor will likely advise rest and medications to relieve discomfort, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
The best way to prevent mumps is to ensure your MMR vaccination is up to date. This vaccine ensures protections against 3 viruses (measles, mumps and rubella) and is often completed during the first year of life.
6. Autoimmune disease
Autoimmune diseases, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, affect how your immune system works significantly. Defense cells from the immune system can start to accumulate within the lymph nodes, leading to inflammation.
Swollen lymph nodes can appear throughout the body in addition to the neck, and they may present with symptoms like muscular pain, nausea, vomiting and night sweats.
What to do: If you suspect you may have an autoimmune disease, you are advised to see a family doctor for testing and treatment as appropriate.
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, It can lead to swollen lymph nodes in the neck and chest, as well as the back of the neck, armpits and groin.
This type of tuberculosis is most commonly diagnosed in people infected with HIV and in women between the ages of 20 and 40.
What to do: You should consult a lung specialist, infectious disease specialist or family doctor, who may initiate treatment with antibiotics like rifampicin, isoniazide or pyrazinamide for at least 6 months.
8. Cushing’s disease
Cushing’s disease is an endocrine disease characterized by increased cortisol levels,which leads to rapid weight gain and fat accumulation in the abdomen and face. This can give the neck a swollen appearance.
This disease can be used by prolonged use or excessive doses of corticosteroids, or pituitary gland tumors.
What to do: You should see a family doctor or endocrinologist for diagnosis and treatment. Treatment may involve gradual reduction of corticosteroids or full discontinuation. Pituitary gland tumors may require surgical removal of cancerous cells, followed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
9. Bacterial cellulitis
Bacterial cellulitis is a skin infection caused by Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria, which can infect skin in area of the body that is compromised from a wound or bug bite, for example.
This type of infection normally causes swelling, pain, heat, and redness, and may be associated with fever, chills and weakness.
What to do: Treatment for bacterial cellulitis is directed by a family doctor or infectious disease specialist, with oral or IV antibiotics.
A lump in the neck can emerge due to lymphoma, which is a type of cancer of the lymph nodes. It can lead to swollen lymph nodes in the neck that persist for more than a few months and continue to grow.
Generally, this type of cancer can present with other symptoms, like fever, night sweats, excessive fatigue, and weight loss for no obvious reason.
What to do: You should consult a family doctor, hematology or oncologist to order blood work and imaging, like a CT scan or PET scan. This will help to identify the type of lymphoma and help to guide treatment, which typically involves chemotherapy or radiation therapy.