Swollen Glands: Why You Get Them (and When to Worry)

Learn how your lymph nodes react to illness and infection

Swollen Glands: Why You Get Them (and When to Worry)

You’re not feeling so great. You think you might be coming down with something. Suddenly, you notice lumps on either side of your neck. What’s going on — does it mean you’re seriously ill? Should you try to reduce the swelling?

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On the contrary. Swollen glands are your body’s natural reaction to illness or infection — and are actually a good thing, says family medicine physician Amber Tully, MD.

When the glands in your body swell as they encounter a bacteria or virus, “That tells us your body’s healthy and robust immune system is working to clear away infection and/or invading viruses or bacteria,” she explains.

What do swollen glands mean?

“Swollen glands” is actually a layman’s term for swollen lymph nodes, which are part of the lymphatic system that helps clear infections from your body.

When you think of swollen glands, you most likely think of swelling in your neck. But the lymph nodes in your groin, under your chin and in your armpits can swell, too.

Several different bacterial and viral infections may cause lymph nodes glands to swell, including:

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“The most common cause of lymph node swelling is an upper respiratory infection, which can take 10 to 14 days to resolve completely,” says Dr. Tully. “As you start feeling better, the swelling should go down as well.”

Doctors only worry about swollen glands when they enlarge for no apparent reason. In rare situations, swollen lymph nodes can even point to cancer — specifically, cancer of the lymphatic system, or lymphoma.

“So if you have a large, swollen area but you’re not feeling sick and you didn’t recently have a cold, flu, upper respiratory infection or skin infection, we’ll do further tests,” she notes.

How can you tell your lymph nodes are swollen?

Let’s focus on the lymph nodes in your head and neck. Along with pea-sized areas of swelling that can occur as they battle a bacteria or virus, you may also notice:

  • Neck or ear pain
  • A runny nose
  • Areas that are tender to the touch
  • Soreness under the chin or neck
  • Fever
  • Sore throat

Can you treat swollen lymph nodes?

You won’t find any medicines that can shrink swollen lymph nodes, says Dr. Tully.

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“If you have tenderness associated with lymph nodes, we can prescribe an anti-inflammatory medicine, such as ibuprofen, to help decrease the soreness,” she says. “But that’s a symptomatic treatment; it doesn’t get rid of swollen lymph nodes.”

Your doctor will focus instead on the condition or infection behind the swelling. “Most of the time it’s just a virus, in which case there isn’t any treatment, and we can only offer supportive care,” she says.

But if you have concerns about swollen lymph nodes, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you pinpoint the cause, determine whether you need treatment and keep you comfortable.

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