You touch your neck and feel a small lump. You have a swollen lymph node, but should you be concerned? Often not, but it is essential to understand what different presentations of this condition can mean.
The location of your swollen knot can be an important clue to begin with. Is there a bump under your chin? You may have a tooth abscess that is about to erupt painfully. Is your lymph node slightly larger than a pea or close to a grape? Different conditions can cause different amounts of swelling.
Does your swollen knot feel rubbery or hard and fixed? Rarely can serious health problems, such as cancer, present themselves in this way. According to data from the Cancer Centers of America, the good news is that only about 1.1% of patients who see their doctor because of a swollen lymph node have a malignancy.
First, what are lymph nodes?
Lymph nodes are part of your body’s lymphatic system, a critical part of your immune system. According to the Mayo Clinic, your lymph nodes, also called lymph nodes, act as filters to trap viruses and bacteria before they can spread throughout your body. They do this by draining moisture, which can prevent infection.
Lymph nodes are located in clusters in different parts of your body. Nodes under your neck, chin, armpits, and groin are likely to swell noticeably.
“A lymph node is like a traffic checkpoint, where the immune system’s ‘police’ routinely checks for bad actors,” says Arif Kamal MD, lead patient of the American Cancer Society.
Lymph nodes are part of your body’s lymphatic system, a critical part of your immune system.
“If something abnormal is detected, the immune system calls in a ‘backup’ and the checkpoint enlarges with more immune cells. In an infection, the lymph nodes swell due to a bacteria or virus being trapped at the checkpoint,” explains Kamal out. .
Lymph nodes are quite small and you often can’t even feel them at their normal size. “Lymph nodes range in size from a few millimeters to 2 centimeters,” says Wais Rahmati, MD, an otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeon, ENT at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School.
“Technically, a lymph node that measures more than 1 centimeter along the shortest side is considered abnormally enlarged,” explains Rahmati.
When is a swollen lymph node cause for concern?
According to Cleveland Clinic, an upper respiratory tract infection is the most common reason for lymph node enlargement. However, when there is sudden swelling, chances are the cause is not too concerning.
“Lymph nodes can suddenly become swollen in the setting of an infection,” says Rahmati. “There may be a single lymph node involved, or multiple lymph nodes may be involved.” You may notice discomfort with a lymph node that swells out of the blue.
“We generally think lymph nodes are more of a concern if they are not painful, larger than the size of a pea, and persist for more than two weeks.”
Again, this may seem scary, but it points more to an infection than a serious illness. “Lymph node swelling that comes on suddenly is also often associated with pain or tenderness in addition to warmth, redness of the skin and fever,” adds Rahmati. “These nodes tend to have a soft, liquid-like consistency.”
It’s also not uncommon for lymph nodes to remain swollen for a short time after you’ve been sick. “For example, we might expect the lymph nodes in the neck to be enlarged after a recent sore throat,” says Kamal. “It’s more concerning if a patient doesn’t have or hasn’t had a local infection.”
According to Kamal, “We generally think lymph nodes are more of a concern if they are not painful, larger than the size of a pea, and persist for more than two weeks.”
The texture of a swollen lymph node is also important to note. “Lymph nodes that are large, not soft, firm, or fixed (not movable) could raise concerns about possible cancer involvement,” explains Rahmati. On the other hand, if you touch a lymph node and it feels hard, and you can’t push it around, you don’t want to ignore it.
If cancer is the cause of a swollen lymph node, it can happen in one of two ways. “Cancer can develop primarily in a lymph node or can spread to lymph nodes from a distant location,” explains Rahmati.
“For example, cancer on the left side of the throat is likely to spread to one or more lymph nodes on the left side of the neck.” Lymphoma, a cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, such as Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s disease, often causes the lymph nodes to swell over time.
When to See Your Doctor About a Swollen Lymph Node?
First, evaluate how you feel and how long the swollen knot has been present.
Node changes and your health that seems to be deteriorating are essential to check out.
“Generally speaking, if you feel generally well and have no significant symptoms, such as unintentional weight loss, night sweats, or a soggy fever, then it’s acceptable to observe the lymph node for two weeks before talking to your doctor,” says Kamal.
Additional symptoms may include persistent tiredness, cough, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, itchy skin after showering or taking a bath or drinking alcohol, swelling or feeling of fullness in your stomach, or pain in your lymph nodes after drinking of alcohol.
If specific features of swollen lymph are present and persist, you want to see your doctor immediately. In addition, any symptoms or changes in the knot and your health that appear to be deteriorating are essential to check out.
“Progressive swelling (of the node), worsening pain, redness, fever, difficulty breathing or swallowing require evaluation,” says Rahmati. “An enlarged lymph node that is present for more than four weeks, with or without other symptoms, should also be evaluated.”
The bottom line: Swollen lymph nodes will usually return to normal once an infection has cleared. However, it is important to listen to your body. Pay close attention if things don’t feel right and be proactive – it’s always the best way to manage your health.