Swollen Glands in the Neck: Causes and Treatment

When you’re sick with a cold, the flu, or COVID-19, you could have swollen neck glands. The glands are actually lymph nodes, small structures that are part of your immune system.

Swollen glands in the neck are a sign that your body is trying to get rid of an infection. The swelling nodes, known as lymphadenopathy, happen when the nodes make more white blood cells to eliminate germs making you sick. Read on to learn more.

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Lymph nodes are soft body structures with round or bean shapes. They are small and can be found all over the body. The nodes are helpful for immunity. They keep or make immune cells that find and get rid of germs that cause illnesses.

You can’t feel all of the lymph nodes in the body, but you may be able to feel them in some areas like:

  • Armpits
  • Behind the ears
  • Groin
  • On the back of the head
  • The neck on either side of the front, sides, and back
  • Under the jaw and chin

Bacterial and viral infections in the neck and, rarely, lymphoma—a type of cancer—can result in swollen neck lymph nodes. However, the nodes generally swell when making a lot of white blood cells in response to infections. These cells are the part of your blood that help the immune system function.

Other specific swollen lymph node causes include:

  • An abscessed tooth, where bacterial infections cause a tooth pus pocket
  • An impacted tooth, where a tooth does not break through the gum
  • Colds or the flu
  • Ear infections
  • Gingivitis, the swelling and inflammation of gums
  • Leukemia, a kind of blood cancer
  • Mononucleosis, a viral infection
  • Mouth sores
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disorder that affects joint functioning
  • Seizure medications
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Skin infections
  • Tonsillitis, a condition of swollen tonsils
  • Tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection
  • Vaccines for typhoid fever, a bacterial infection

Depending on what’s causing the swelling, you may also experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Node tenderness or warmth
  • A runny, congested nose
  • Skin rashes or lesions
  • Sore throat
  • Unexplained weight loss

A physical exam, medical history, and symptom history can help providers figure out what’s causing swollen glands in the neck. They may also use diagnostic tests such as:

  • Blood tests: A provider may order a complete blood count (CBC) to tell them how many white blood cells are in the blood. The test can also show if the cells look abnormal to rule out serious conditions like lymphoma.
  • Chest X-ray: This test gives the provider an image of your chest, diaphragm, heart, large arteries, lungs, and ribs. It can possibly show visible nodes.
  • Lymph node biopsy: A healthcare provider may get a small sample of lymph node tissue for a lab exam. This can help them confirm the cause of swollen or abnormal lymph nodes.

Treatment for lymphadenopathy varies according to the cause. If the reason for swollen neck glands is an infection, a person may be prescribed medications to help resolve the illness. For example, a provider may prescribe antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection. The nodes also get smaller, usually after the infection goes away.

When lymph nodes swell in the neck due to cancer, treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or any combination of the three.

Complications won’t occur only because a person has swollen lymph nodes in the neck or anywhere in the body. However, the untreated causes of lymphadenopathy may get worse. Possible complications may be:

  • An immune system that does not function properly
  • Metastatic cancer, when cancerous cells go to other places in the body compared to where they were originally
  • Sepsis, which is a bodily reaction to an infection that requires immediate medical attention

Swollen lymph nodes may also rarely point to a more serious underlying condition. Contact a healthcare provider if you notice any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • A child has a lymph node larger than one centimeter in diameter.
  • The nodes are red and tender.
  • They feel hard, irregular, or fixed in place.
  • You have a fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss.
  • Your lymph nodes do not get smaller after several weeks or continue to get larger.

You may notice that the glands in your neck become swollen if you come down with a common cold, the flu, COVID-19, or another upper respiratory infection. Those glands are lymph nodes swelling in response to illnesses like upper respiratory infections, STIs, and tonsilitis.

If your swollen lymph nodes last several weeks, become more prominent or harden, or you develop a fever, among other symptoms, consult a healthcare provider for further evaluation.

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