Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits & Co.

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits & Co.

Swollen lymph nodes are a common symptom – the swelling can be caused by a coldflu or tonsillitis, among other things. A severe illness, on the other hand, is only rarely behind the symptoms. Lymph nodes are distributed all over the body – ubiquitous in the neck, neck and ears, as well as under the armpits and in the groin area. We tell you what you can do if you have swollen lymph nodes and when you should seek medical advice.

function of the lymph nodes

The lymph nodes filter toxins and microorganisms from the body that are transported through the lymphatic fluid. This includes dead skin cells or pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. The lymph nodes are usually only a few millimetres in size and are well connected. They form filter stations in which the tissue fluid – the lymph – is cleaned.

The lymph nodes play a central role in our immune system: if pathogens enter the lymph system, special white blood cells – the lymphocytes – are further developed, multiplied and released into the blood through the lymph nodes. There, they contribute to the formation of antibodies. This process can cause the lymph nodes to swell. Swelling, therefore, indicates that the lymph node is active.

Lymph nodes are concentrated in certain places in the body, for example, in the neck, under the armpits, in the chest, in the abdomen and the groin area.


Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes do not necessarily indicate a malignant disease – they are usually caused by harmless infectious diseases such as flu or tonsillitis. If this is the case, the lymph nodes are usually sensitive to pressure when pressure is applied. In all cases, the swelling of the lymph nodes can be unilateral or bilateral, although it occurs more frequently on one side in the case of cancer. A serious cause such as cancer is only very rarely behind the symptoms.

In some diseases, only the lymph nodes in a specific region are swollen – often, a local inflammation is the trigger. A cold can be the cause of swollen lymph nodes in the neck. If the lymph nodes swell in several areas simultaneously, a bacterial or viral infection can also be the trigger. However, it is also conceivable that diseases of the immune system or the lymphatic system or myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are behind it.

If the lymph nodes are noticeably thickened and can be felt, they are called palpable lymph nodes in medicine.

Lymph nodes are swollen – what are the causes?

Swollen lymph nodes indicate the activity of the respective nodes. The most common causes of swelling include:

  • bacterial or viral infections
  • Thyroid diseases
  • benign or malignant lymphomas
  • Diseases of the salivary glands
  • Connective tissue diseases
  • inflammatory processes in the body

Overall, the list of diseases that can cause swollen lymph nodes is very long since a reaction by the immune system can always cause lymph node swelling. The localization of the lymph node swelling can provide information about the disease, but this is not necessarily the case.

Below is an overview of different body regions where swollen lymph nodes are widespread. Learn more about possible triggers.


Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

There can be various causes behind swollen lymph nodes in the neck – a cold or tonsillitis (tonsillitis) is particularly often the trigger. In general, bacterial or viral infections of the upper respiratory tract are possible because an infection in this area also affects the lymph nodes in the throat: they swell and are sensitive to pressure. The swelling creates a feeling of having a thick throat.

In addition, dental diseases and inflammation or fungal diseases in the mouth can also trigger swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

In addition to swollen lymph nodes, so-called lipomas (benign tumours from fatty tissue cells), atheromas (benign cysts filled with sebum) and, in rare cases, malignant tumours in the neck tissue can also cause swelling or thickening in the neck.

Swollen lymph nodes under the armpit

The lymph nodes in the armpits filter lymph from the arms, so they can swell if there is local inflammation in the hands or arms. In addition, a wide variety of infectious diseases can also trigger the symptoms. Suppose the swelling persists for a more extended period. In that case, you should seek medical advice because malignant diseases such as breast cancerskin cancer or lymph gland cancer can also make themselves felt through swollen lymph nodes.

In the case of swelling under the armpits, it should always be clarified first whether it is swollen lymph nodes or whether there is another cause, such as a sweat gland abscess. Inflammation of the sebaceous glands can also be a reason for the swelling, especially if the supposedly swollen lymph nodes appear after shaving.

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck and ears

Like the lymph nodes in the neck, the lymph nodes behind the ear often swell when you have a cold or a respiratory infection. In addition, other causes – such as inflammation of the gums or an inflammation of the middle ear – can also be the trigger.

The lymph nodes in the neck can also swell with a nose and throat disease. In addition, diseases of the parotid gland and the scalp are also possible causes.


Swollen lymph nodes in the groin

Swollen lymph nodes are also common in the groin area. Here is a detailed overview of possible triggers for swollen lymph nodes in the groin.

Other localizations possible

The exact location of the swollen lymph nodes can provide the first clues to the underlying cause. In addition to the neck, ears, armpit, and groin, swelling is possible anywhere there are lymph nodes. In diseases of the chest, such as tuberculosis, for example, the lymph nodes above the collarbone are often swollen. If, on the other hand, the swelling is below the lower jaw, a disease of the oral cavity is probably the cause.

Swelling of the lymph nodes, distributed all over the body, can also occur. This is the case, for example, with glandular fever.

Cancer as a cause of swollen lymph nodes

Tumours in the lymphatic system are called lymphomas. They can be both good and bad. In the case of malignant lymphomas, a distinction is made between two different types – Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Lymphoma is an uncontrolled growth of lymphocytes, a subset of white blood cells.

As the disease progresses, other symptoms such as itching, weight loss, fever or night sweats appear in addition to the swollen lymph nodes. As a rule, the lymph nodes in non-Hodgkin or Hodgkin lymphoma swell less suddenly, but the swelling lasts much longer. In addition, the swelling is usually not painful, which means it is not sensitive to pressure.

However, tumour-related swelling of the lymph nodes cannot only be caused by tumours in the lymphatic system. Cancer in neighbouring organs or leukaemia can also cause such symptoms. In addition to cancer, other severe conditions can also be behind swollen lymph nodes. For example, in rare cases, the symptoms can indicate an infection with HIV or tuberculosis.


Swollen lymph nodes after vaccination

After the vaccination, the body forms antibodies against the substances perceived as foreign (e.g. weakened viruses or replicated virus components). As a result, swollen lymph nodes can also occur as part of a vaccination reaction. These often occur near the injection site (i.e. usually in the armpit area but also below the collarbone) and should go away on their own after a few days at the latest.

Swollen lymph nodes in children

Just like in adults, the lymph nodes in children can also swell. This immune system reaction occurs much more frequently in children than in adults since children come into contact with many germs for the first time. If pathogens are found in the body, the development and activation of lymphocytes in the lymph nodes is ramped up. This can lead to lymph node swelling.

While it is common for children to have swollen lymph nodes for several weeks, you should seek medical advice to be safe. In this way, whether there is a severe illness behind the symptoms can be clarified.

Swollen lymph nodes: what to do?

If the lymph nodes are swollen, the treatment always depends on the cause of the symptoms. The symptoms usually go away on their own after a few days. If a bacterial infection is the trigger, it can be treated with antibiotics in more severe cases. In the case of viral infections, only other symptoms that occur, such as fever, are usually treated – in some cases, however, taking an antiviral can also make sense.

If the swelling of the lymph nodes persists for more than two to three weeks without any other symptoms or if the symptoms recur, medical advice should be sought. This also applies if the additional symptoms do not improve within a week and mainly if the following symptoms occur:

You should see a doctor to rule out a severe illness in such cases. The first point of contact is usually the family doctor’s practice. You will be referred to an internal medicine or oncology practice, an ENT practice or a dentist there.


Diagnosis with swollen lymph nodes

At the beginning of the medical examination, a comprehensive discussion is held to determine possible accompanying symptoms or triggers of the lymph node swelling (anamnesis).

During the subsequent palpation examination, it is determined whether the swelling is hard or soft, mobile or immovable and whether touching it causes pain. This information can be extremely helpful in determining the cause.

If the lymph nodes are deeper or if there are other reasons for the swelling, such as cysts or abscesses, an ultrasound examination (sonography) is carried out. The spleen and liver are also examined for possible enlargement.

A tissue sample (biopsy) from the lymph node can then be taken if necessary. A blood test can also be helpful if you are unsure about the trigger, for example, if there are elevated levels of inflammation or if there are antibodies against specific pathogens.

Home remedies for swollen lymph nodes

If the cause of the swollen lymph nodes is a cold or flu, treating the symptoms will help speed up the lymph node swelling. Anti-inflammatory drinks such as ginger, sage or thyme tea can help here. A high liquid intake also stimulates the flow of saliva, which means the salivary glands are flushed better. Cold wraps can also help to alleviate inflammatory reactions in the body and thus promote a reduction in swelling in the lymph nodes.



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