Lymph nodes are round shaped small structures that help in fighting infection. They are found in many parts of the body like neck, breasts and reproductive organs. They act as an agent for immune system and generally the lymph nodes are not visible. They can be felt only when they become enlarged.
Inflammation of Lymph Nodes :
The swollen lymph nodes indicate that something is wrong in that region/part of the body. When particular part of the body gets infected, the lymph nodes get enlarged suggesting that it is abnormal. Lymphocytes are elements present in the lymph nodes that produces antibodies to fight many microorganisms.
Where Lymph Nodes are Present?
Lymph nodes are not destined only to the neck but it is found throughout the body. Even it is found just beneath the skin and also in deeper organs of the body. Lymph nodes are found in the head, neck, armpit, skin and even in the groin area. Lymph nodes can be felt as palpable by your physician only when they become enlarged or inflamed.
Why Lymph Nodes Become Enlarged and Swollen?
Lymph nodes are area specific meaning that lymph nodes of the neck get enlarged only if there is throat infection or ear infection. Often viral infection is the main cause for enlargement of lymph nodes.
Infections Can Cause Inflammation of Lymph Nodes :
Some of the common infections that cause enlarged lymph nodes are strep infection, measles, chicken pox, skin infection, tooth infection and ear infection. Sometimes even cellulitis infection can make the lymph nodes swollen. And HIV infection can also cause swollen lymph nodes.
Other Diseases and Disorders that Lead to Enlargement of Lymph Nodes :
In rare cases sexually transmitted infections, cat scratch fever, tuberculosis infection and toxoplasmosis infection also enlarges the lymph nodes. Systemic lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and other immune related disorder can also affect the lymph nodes.
Cancer Can Also Cause Swelling Of Lymph Nodes :
Certain types of cancer like leukemia (blood cancer) and lymphoma can also cause inflammation of lymph nodes. Cancer that moves to other organs from the originating place can also affect the lymph nodes. For instance, woman with breast cancer would have swelling of lymph nodes in her underarms. A man with lung cancer would have swelling of lymph nodes near the collar bone.
Symptoms of Swollen Lymph Nodes :
When the lymph nodes get swollen, it can cause mild to moderate pain in that area. A person with strep infection in his throat would develop enlargement of lymph nodes in his neck. In most of the cases your doctor gets cue from other symptoms like fever, throat pain, persistent cough and fatigue suggesting that something is wrong in your throat.
- Tender and Painful Nodes :
When the lymph nodes become enlarged and swollen it can cause considerable pain in that area and that part become tender.
- Fever and Night Sweats :
People with respiratory or throat infection are likely to develop moderate fever and night sweats along with enlarged lymph nodes.
Serious Infection :
More potential infections like HIV or lupus can cause enlargement of lymph nodes throughout the body.
Weakened Immune System :
Anything wrong with your immune system can also cause lymph nodes enlargement.
What Happens If You Ignore These Symptoms?
Not all the people with the above signs visit medical practitioner. It has become a practice for many of us to use OTC drugs and pain-killers to subside the symptoms of fever and inflammation. Enlargement of lymph node is not a disease but is a strong sign that something is wrong with your body.
- Blood Gets Infected :
If you are not treating the underlying infection it can cause many complications. The infectious bacteria/virus can invade other organs nearby and in more serious cases can infect the bloodstream also. Bacteremia is a potentially serious blood infection leading to sepsis which can cause organ failure also.
- Tumor Can Be Formed :
Sometimes an abscess or tumor can be formed in the affected area with pus collection causing more damage to the organ. Sepsis can become fatal if not given prompt treatment. In-patient treatment is required for some days if abscess is formed.
Swollen and enlarge lymph nodes can be easily diagnosed by an expert doctor by feeling the specific areas where they are found. Swollen lymph nodes can be felt on under-arms, sides of the neck and in the groin area. Based on other signs of the patient, the doctor may request for other tests like X-rays, CT or MRI scan. The next task of the doctor is to find the underlying cause for swelling of lymph nodes. He would suspect infection of bacteria or virus based on other symptoms. The doctor can feel the nodes as tender or hard or sometimes rubbery.
If the doctor suspects cancer he may order for biopsy test by removing the sample and testing it on the lab. Other tests like complete blood count would be done to detect infections and blood related disorders.
Treatment of swollen lymph nodes is based on causative factor. If the real cause is infection the doctor would prescribe antibiotics (for bacterial infection) and antiviral drugs (for viral infection). Suitable medications and therapy are recommended for immune related disorders like arthritis or systemic lupus. If biopsy test reveals presence of tumor inside suitable cancer therapy like chemo or radiotherapy would be started.
Significance of Inflamed Lymph Nodes :
- Enlarged Lymph Nodes On The Neck (tonsillitis) :
If the lymph nodes on the sides of the neck or under the jaw gets swollen it suggests throat infection or respiratory tract infection or tooth infection. Your doctor would touch the area of the neck gently and apply pressure to feel the nodes and to check if it is tender or hard. The most common cause for swelling lymph nodes in the neck is due to infection. In rare cases it can be due to cancerous tumor in the head.
- Swollen Lymph Nodes In The Ear (adenoids) :
Ear infection or eye infection could be the cause for enlargement of lymph nodes on the sides of the ear.
- Lymph Nodes In The Under-Arm Region :
These lymph nodes seldom become swollen or enlarged. Such inflamed lymph nodes in this area suggest breast cancer. Often patients undergoing treatment for breast cancer are examined frequently for swollen lymphatic system under-arms. Even the stage of the cancer can be detected by checking the lymph nodes here.
- Collar Bone Lymph Nodes :
Enlargement of lymph nodes just on top of collar bone suggest something is abnormal. It can be due to lung cancer, breast cancer or lymphoma. In some cases TB can also cause swelling of nodes over collar bone.
- Groin Lymph Nodes :
Adolescent people would have swollen lymph nodes in this region suggesting growth of reproductive organs. However in adults or older people it can be due to sexual diseases, cancer on private parts like vaginal cancer or scrotal cancer etc. For some people potential leg infections can cause swelling of lymph nodes on the groin area.