Lymph Node Swelling: Health Facts You Should Know

The lymph nodes which are also called lymph glands help the body to fight infections. Swelling of lymph nodes usually occurs due to an infection. This could be due to a viral or bacterial infection. However, at times it could be due to cancer.

These nodes function as a filter to trap bacteria and viruses which can cause infections in other parts of the body. Some of the places where lymph nodes usually get swollen include the neck, chin, armpits and the groin. Treating a swollen lymph node depends on the cause of the swelling.

According to The ENT Clinic doctor, Dr Jeeve, and his collegues Dr Annabelle and Dr Hobbs from in Singapore, once the otolaryngologist  knows the cause of your lymph node swelling, the specialist will start treatment accordingly.

If you are suffering from swollen lymph nodes, visiting a practice with experienced otolaryngologists will help to get an accurate diagnosis. It is recommended to have an ENT evaluation rather than by a general doctor since it is important to have a thorough evaluation of the upper airways to rule out the presence of a malignancy.

What are the causes of lymph node swelling?

The most common cause of lymph node swelling is due to an infection. Viral infections are a frequent cause of lymph node swelling. Some of the common respiratory illnesses causing lymph node swellings include:

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  • Strep throat: This is an infection of the throat and tonsils which is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus. The symptoms include chills, fever, sore throat, and lymph node swelling. It is important to have Strep throat treated with an antibiotic as unattended strep throat can lead to heart and kidney complications.
  • Ear infections: Fluid build-up due to an allergy, sinusitis or a respiratory infection can cause an ear infection. This can lead to lymph nodes in front or behind the ears to swell.
  • Measles: This viral infection brings about a bad cold, high fever, runny nose and sore throat with skin rashes also causes the lymph nodes of the neck to swell.
  • Abscessed tooth: A mouth injury, cavities or dental work can cause a tooth infection which causes the lymph nodes under the neck or jaw to swell. The abscessed tooth can lead to a foul smelling mouth with a pus leak.
  • Mononucleosis: This is an infection caused by the Epstein Barr Virus and is common in teenagers. This disease is spread through saliva. An individual infected with this disease can experience swelling in lymph nodes of the neck and it can also cause tonsils to be swollen and develop a discharge.
  • AIDS: The HIV virus affects the lymph nodes around the neck, armpits and groin. This virus affects the entire immune system and an early sign of HIV infection is swollen lymph nodes. It can occur in the late stages of infection too due to opportunistic infections.
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Apart from these conditions, the lymph nodes throughout the body can swell due to immune system disorders or cancers. Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus cause the lymph nodes to swell.

  • Lymphoma: This is a cancer in the lymphatic system and it can occur in the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus and bone marrow. It can affect all the regions of the body and swollen lymph nodes are a common sign.Use of allergic, antimalarial and anti-seizure medications too can lead to swollen lymph nodes. Some of the other causes can include:
  • Tuberculosis: Caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, this condition involves the painful swelling of one or more lymph nodes. It can affect the lungs, kidneys and joints.

Other conditions can include:

  • Metastasized cancer
  • Tonsillitis
  • Toxoplasmosis

Diagnosis of Lymph Node Swelling

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It is important to make a correct diagnosis to find the root cause of the lymph node swelling. To do this, your ENT doctor will do a thorough medical history check. Through this medical history review, the doctor will want to know more details about when and how the swelling of the lymph nodes happened. The specialist will perform a physical examination to check the size, texture and tenderness of the lymph nodes. This will give an indication to the reasons behind the underlying disease. In addition, the otolaryngologist will perform:

  • Blood Tests: These tests will help to confirm or exclude any suspected underlying conditions. A full blood count is a usual blood test to find the suspected cause. It helps to evaluate the overall health condition to find the cause for the infections or a leukaemia.
  • Imaging Tests: X-rays, ultrasound scans and CT scans of the affected area would help to see if there are any tumours or malignancies present.
  • Lymph node biopsy: The ENT doctor will want to do a biopsy to confirm diagnosis. The doctor will therefore analyse a sample from the lymph node and even do a microscopic examination.
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How are lymph node swellings treated?

Once the cause is identified by the specialist, treatment can begin. Usually, the swollen lymph nodes return to normal once the infection is resolved.

  • Infection: If the lymph node swelling is caused by a bacterium then antibiotics can be used to resolve the condition. However if this is due to an HIV infection, anti-retroviral therapy can be used.
  • Immune disorder: If an individual has rheumatoid arthritis or a condition such as lupus, then treating the underlying condition helps to improve lymph node swelling.
  • Cancer: Radiation and chemotherapy can help in controlling the cancer and the doses and frequency needed will depend on the type and stage of the cancer. Treatment improves lymph node swelling.

Are there any lifestyle changes which can help?

One can gain some relief by following these steps:

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  • Applying a warm compress: Keeping a warm, wet compress in the affected area is helpful.
  • Over the counter medications: Pain relief medication like aspirin and ibuprofen can help to relieve you
  • Rest: Recovery is faster with adequate rest.

How do I prepare for the appointment?

If your symptoms are mild then seeing your family practitioner might get your worries sorted. However, you would need a referral to an ENT specialist if the symptoms are chronic and lasting especially if you experience severe symptoms like pain when swallowing. It will be helpful if you can communicate  a list of the symptoms you experience along with the duration of the disease and severity when meeting the doctor.