Swollen Lymph Nodes: Causes and Treatment

Swollen lymph nodes are a very bothersome health problem. Their appearance is usually due to infections, although it can also be the product of a malignant neoplasm.
Swollen Lymph Nodes: Causes and Treatment

Last update: 17 April, 2021

Having swollen glands is an annoying problem that can appear due to various pathologies, many of them benign. However, swollen lymph nodes are a clear sign that something is wrong with the body, and so it’s important to get to know all the probable causes.

The immune system is made up of a variety of organs and cells that complement each other, giving the body different types of immunity. The lymph nodes are part of this system and their main function is the creation of white blood cells, as well as the filtering of lymph.

These organs are distributed throughout the body, however, they form clusters in certain areas such as the neck, groin, armpits, jaw, and chin. Therefore, swollen lymph nodes are more noticeable in these areas, although their location may vary.

Causes of swollen lymph nodes

It’s important to clarify that lymph node inflammation isn’t a disease in itself, but rather a clinical response to multiple diseases. They’re considered to be swollen when they exceed 2 cm (0.8 inches) in areas such as the neck or armpits, and when they exceed 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) in the groin.

In general terms, lymph nodes can become inflamed due to 3 main causes: infectious processes, malignant neoplasms, and lymphomas.

Infectious processes

Various studies claim that infections are the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes in children. All diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi can cause an increase in the size of these structures.

Infections are a common cause of swollen glands.
Infections of the respiratory tract often cause swollen glands in the neck.

This is a very common finding in viral infections of the upper respiratory tract and in infections of regions near the neck, such as the throat and ears. On the other hand, swollen lymph nodes can also appear in systemic infections such as leishmaniasis or malaria.

There are several physiological processes that can explain the inflammation of the ganglia in infectious processes, among which the following stand out:

  • The proliferation of lymphocytes and macrophages within the lymph nodes
  • Infiltration of extrinsic inflammatory cells

Malignant neoplasms

All existing types of cancer are capable of proliferating and reaching the lymphatic system, causing a metastatic infiltration of cancer cells. This infiltration will be capable of causing an inflammation of the affected lymph nodes, the location of which will vary depending on the origin of the tumor.

Despite being a serious disease, this is a rare finding in medical practice. Some studies show that malignant diseases cause about 12.7% of all diagnosed adenopathies. However, people should be aware of the following symptoms:

  • Generalized enlargement of the nodes without a clear cause
  • A weight loss of greater than 10%
  • Multiple nodes larger than 3 cm (1.2 inches)
  • A clinical evolution over 4 weeks
  • Supraclavicular location


Lymphomas are a specific group of neoplasms that affect the lymph nodes, and which cause inflammation through a pathological proliferation of lymphocytes and macrophages. Currently, a large number of lymphomas have been discovered, many of them malignant and very aggressive.

These diseases can be so serious that they represent the eighth leading cause of cancer death in countries like Mexico. However, its frequency is low, with the non-Hodgkin lymphoma one of the most frequent pathologies.

The main warning sign for this disease is the enlargement of the lymph nodes. In this sense, the larger the affected area, the greater the probability that it is a lymphoma.

Characteristics of swollen glands

Swollen lymph nodes can be caused by viral infections such as pharyngitis or by malignancies. In this sense, their characteristics may vary depending on the pathology that is causing it. They are an important factor in medical diagnosis.

Clinical evaluation of swollen nodes is essential to reach a diagnosis.
There are certain clinical patterns that allow the physician to assume the origin of the swollen nodes.

The characteristics of the inflammation can guide the specialist as to whether it’s an infectious process or a malignant disease. In general terms, swollen glands caused by infections have the following characteristics:

  • Painful to the touch
  • Soft consistency
  • Poorly defined edges
  • Mobile
  • The overlying skin may be red and hot

Most malignant or neoplastic processes also have similar characteristics when they affect the system in question. In this way, the lymph nodes can have the following characteristics:

  • Hard consistency
  • Not painful to the touch
  • Well defined edges
  • Immobile

The case of lymphomas is a particular one, as the characteristics of the swollen nodes will be very similar to those observed in infectious processes. However, the main difference is that the nodes affected by lymphoma won’t be painful.

Treatment for swollen lymph nodes

The best method of treating lymph node swelling will always be to eliminate the underlying pathology. In this sense, they usually return to their regular size a few days after the infectious process has resolved.

In the case of malignancies and lymphomas, treatment is more complex and surgical removal of the node is usually necessary. In turn, the application of chemotherapy and radiotherapy cycles can help eliminate the remaining cancer cells.

On the other hand, certain measures can also be taken that, even though they won’t cure the underlying disease, they will help reduce lymph node symptoms. In this sense, the application of warm compresses in the area helps to reduce inflammation.

Taking over-the-counter pain relievers can help reduce pain in infectious processes. However, a doctor should always be consulted before taking any medication.

Finally, resting helps to aid recovery from many illnesses, and so strenuous physical activities should be avoided.

General considerations

Inflammation of the lymph nodes can be due to different pathologies, with infections being the main cause. In this way, strengthening the immune system can be an effective way to prevent the appearance of this health problem.

This clinical finding can be evidenced in some malignant neoplasms, and so it’s a sign that shouldn’t be underestimated. Unfortunately, there’s no specific treatment for swollen lymph nodes, and so the best solution will always be to eliminate the underlying pathology.

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