As part of our immune system, lymph nodes play a crucial role in protecting us against infections and diseases. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped glands found throughout the body, and they can swell or become tender when the immune system is fighting an infection or disease.
While swollen lymph nodes are usually a sign of a minor infection or illness, they can also be an early warning sign of a more serious condition. In this article, we will discuss the red flags that you should look out for when it comes to your lymph nodes and when to seek medical attention.
Understanding Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, which is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials. They are found throughout the body, including the neck, armpits, groin, and abdomen.
When the immune system detects an infection or disease, it sends lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) to the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes trap and filter out the harmful substances, which are then destroyed by the lymphocytes.
When to Worry About Lymph Nodes
1. Lymph Nodes that Persist or Keep Growing
If your lymph nodes are swollen and do not go away or keep growing after three to four weeks, it may be a sign of a more serious condition.
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer can sometimes cause swelling of lymph nodes. Cancer cells from the original site can travel through the lymphatic system and start to grow in lymph nodes. In this case, a biopsy may be necessary to determine if the swelling is cancerous.
2. Hard, Fixed, and Non-Tender Lymph Nodes
If your lymph nodes feel hard, fixed, and non-tender (not painful), it could be a red flag for cancer.
The National Cancer Institute states that cancerous lymph nodes may feel hard and rubbery, and they may not move when you push on them. In addition, cancerous lymph nodes may not be painful, whereas swollen lymph nodes from an infection or inflammation are usually painful.
3. Multiple Swollen Lymph Nodes
If you have multiple swollen lymph nodes in different parts of your body, it could be a sign of a systemic illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and syphilis can cause swollen lymph nodes in multiple parts of the body. These diseases require prompt medical attention and treatment.
4. Lymph Node Swelling Accompanied by Other Symptoms
If your lymph node swelling is accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss, it could be a sign of a serious condition.
A study published in American Family Physician states that fever, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss are the “B symptoms” that suggest Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. Other symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma include itchy skin and fatigue.
When Should You Seek Medical Attention?
If you notice any of the red flags discussed above, you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
It is important to remember that swollen lymph nodes are usually a sign of a minor infection or illness. However, if your lymph nodes are persistently swollen, keep growing, or feel hard and fixed, it could be a sign of a more serious condition that requires medical attention.
Prevention and Treatment
While there is no way to prevent lymph node swelling entirely, you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing lymphatic disease or cancer, such as:
- Maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine
- Quitting smoking
- Limiting your alcohol intake
- Practicing safe sex
- Managing your stress levels
If your lymph nodes are swollen, your healthcare provider will determine the underlying cause and treat it accordingly. Treatment options may include antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, or in some cases, surgery or radiation therapy.
Swelling of the lymph nodes is usually a sign of a minor infection or illness. However, if your lymph nodes persistently swell or keep growing, feel hard and fixed, or cause other symptoms such as fever, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss, it could be a red flag for a more serious condition.
If you notice any of the red flags discussed in this article, it is important to seek medical attention promptly. With early detection and treatment, the prognosis for many lymphatic diseases and cancers is very good.
- What causes lymph nodes to swell?
- What are the symptoms of lymph node swelling?
- How long does it take for swollen lymph nodes to go away?
- How are swollen lymph nodes treated?
- Do swollen lymph nodes mean cancer?
Lymph nodes can swell due to infection, inflammation, injury, or cancer.
The symptoms of lymph node swelling include tenderness, pain, and swelling in the affected area.
Swollen lymph nodes usually go away on their own within two to four weeks.
The treatment for swollen lymph nodes depends on the underlying cause. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, or in some cases, surgery or radiation therapy.
While swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of cancer, they are usually caused by infection or inflammation.
- “Lymph Nodes and Their Functions.” National Cancer Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/lymph-nodes.
- “Swollen Lymph Nodes.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 July 2020, www.cdc.gov/lyme/signs_symptoms/lymphadenopathy.html.
- “When to Suspect and How to Monitor Hodgkin Lymphoma Patients.” American Family Physician, vol. 96, no. 3, 2017, pp. 169–175., PMID: 28925633.