‘Tis the season for runny noses and swollen glands (groan). More often than not, you can blame symptoms on a virus that’s spreading like wildfire.
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But occasionally, a lump on the side of the neck can signal something more dangerous. In this Q&A, internist Daniel Sullivan, MD, explains when swollen glands may be a sign of cancer — and how to know if you’re at risk.
A: In the neck, there are two areas that we call glands:
The lymph glands are the body’s sophisticated sewer system. They get rid of things that our body doesn’t want, such as bacteria, viruses and other things that enter our system.
There are about 600 pea- to bean-sized lymph nodes throughout your body, from your legs to your jaw.
A: When a lymph node notices something harmful in the body, it uses its resources to try to destroy it. Inside the lymph nodes are blood cells that fight infection and disease. When the lymph nodes start using them, the gland gets bigger.
Colds, sore throats and ear infections all lead to swollen lymph nodes. We treat the infection, it goes away, and the lymph node shrinks.
Location matters: The glands under your jawline are rarely a problem. They may swell because one of the ducts of saliva entering the mouth gets narrowed or blocked. The chance of cancer developing on those glands is small. We’re more concerned about the lymph nodes on the side of the neck.
A: Often, lymph glands are painful when they’re swollen from an infection. We get concerned when someone has a lymph node in their neck that:
Two weeks is a rough guide for us to start considering cancer as a possibility. If it’s been there for more than two weeks and continues to get larger, that’s an even bigger red flag.
There are some other factors that may point to cancer:
A: Squamous cell cancer is a big one. Skin cancers that started on the face or scalp can be a concern, too. And there are sometimes oral cancers that a dentist would recognize. If someone said to me, ‘A dentist once removed an early cancer from my mouth or cheek area,’ that may be a sign that something’s going on. We’d also consider lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.
Patients’ health history is an important part of the conversation so we can plan the best next steps in their care.