You have lymph nodes throughout your body—they’re in the sides of your neck, armpits, chest, belly and groin area. Sometimes they get swollen. You might notice a lump when they do, and the site might feel sore or tender.
Most of the time, a swollen lymph node means your lymphatic system is doing an important part of its job. It’s trapping viruses, bacteria and pathogens and signaling your body to make white blood cells that can help you fight infections. “Rather than being something scary, most enlarged lymph nodes are a sign of a healthy immune system,” said Rebecca Moran, MD, a family medicine specialist at Banner Health Clinic in Phoenix.
When you have swollen lymph nodes (also known as lymph glands), you’ll probably notice other symptoms from whatever is causing them, such as fatigue, fever, sore throat, runny nose or other signs of infection.
What are common causes of swollen lymph nodes?
- Autoimmune disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
- Some vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccines, which can cause temporary lymph node swelling when your body makes antibodies against future infection. (In fact, women should consider postponing routine mammograms for four to six weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine, since swollen lymph nodes in the armpit could look like an abnormality.)
- Rarely, cancers such as lymphoma, leukemia or other cancers that have spread to the lymph nodes.
How can you prevent swollen lymph nodes?
You can’t stop a lymph node from swelling as it fights off infections and other things that don’t belong in the body. “That is what they are designed to do, and we want them to do it,” Dr. Moran said.
You can try to prevent the infections that lead to swollen lymph nodes by washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces, avoiding touching your nose and eyes and staying away from people with contagious infections. You can also help keep yourself healthy by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding tobacco products.
How can you treat tender lymph nodes?
Tender lymph nodes will feel better when the underlying infection clears. If you have a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. A viral infection needs to run its course. In the meantime, you can apply warm compresses to your tender lymph nodes and take pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
If an autoimmune disorder or cancer is causing your tender lymph nodes, your health care provider can provide treatments for those conditions.
When should you be concerned about swollen lymph nodes?
You don’t need to worry about your swollen lymph nodes most of the time. But a talk and physical examination with your health care provider is recommended if your swollen glands:
- Feel hard and don’t move around easily when you press on them
- Grow bigger than one centimeter (or the size of a large pea)
- Don’t shrink within a month
- Appear without any apparent reason
- Are located throughout the body rather than in one area
- Appear along with unexplained weight loss, persistent fevers or night sweats
- Develop just above your collarbone or in your armpit, especially if there’s no explanation for them
- Grow large quickly and become painful and red, which could mean they are infected
The bottom line
Swollen lymph nodes are a sign your body is fighting off infection, like it is supposed to do. But sometimes, they can signal a more serious problem.
Have concerns about swollen lymph nodes?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider near you.