​Have you ever felt a swollen bean-shaped cell under your skin and wondered what it was? If you’re familiar with the term lymph nodes, do you know what they are and what they actually do? 

Realizing that I knew very little about the subject, I decided to look into some research to see if I could find answers to questions that continued to spring up as my curiosity grew. 

What are lymph nodes, and why do they swell? How long do lymph nodes stay swollen? Does the swelling go away on its own, and when should you seek medical attention? Is it bad to keep touching or pressing a swollen node? The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know. 

It turns out that lymph nodes, what they do, how they function, and what happens when they malfunction are pretty interesting topics and important to know and inform yourself about.

What are Lymph Nodes? 

You have hundreds of lymph nodes located throughout your body. They work together with lymph vessels and lymph fluid as part of your immune system to form a network that captures and filters viruses, bacteria, liquids, and other waste that collects in your body’s tissues. 


Lymph vessels function similarly to arteries and veins but transport clear lymph fluid instead of blood. Lymph fluid carries your white blood cells that your body uses to combat illnesses and infections. 


Lymph nodes help filter dangerous materials with the help of immune cells by targeting germs and getting rid of infection-causing organisms that might found in the lymph fluid. 


Every lymph node filters the lymph fluid in a network around certain parts of the body. For example, fluid around the face and head gets filtered by lymph nodes located in your neck. After the fluid is filtered and completes its circuit, it makes its way back into your bloodstream with proteins and salts.

Why Do Lymph Nodes Become Swollen?

When you feel a swollen lump under your skin that doesn’t seem to go away, it can be easy to Google symptoms and scare yourself, let your imagination run wild, or automatically jump to assuming you have cancer. However, cancer is rarely the cause of swollen lymph nodes. 


When lymph fluid builds up, it causes swelling and can cause issues that affect the flow and drainage. If you have an injury, infection, or certain diseases like cancer, your lymph nodes might get swollen as they try to filter or get rid of the malignant cells. 


For example, if you have an ear infection, the lymph nodes close to your ear could become swollen and serve as an additional clue to let you know that there is a problem. 


Swollen lymph nodes are known as lymphadenopathy and swelling is common in the lymph nodes found in the underarms, groin, and neck.  


Typically, swelling of lymph nodes takes place in one part of your body at a time, but if more than one area is experiencing swollen lymph nodes, it’s known as generalized lymphadenopathy. 


Swelling of the lymph nodes in multiple areas can be the result of cancers like lymphoma, infections like chicken pox, and immune system disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. 


Lymph nodes are typically small in size, and you generally won’t feel them unless something is causing inflammation, and then you might be able to see and feel the nodes found close to the body’s surface.

When to See a Doctor

Doctor writing on patient's info sheet

Image via pexels

You should consult a physician if you’re worried about the cause behind the swelling or your lymph nodes: 

  • Feel swollen for more than two weeks.
  • Are hard to the touch or don’t move when you press down on them.
  • Have additional symptoms like sudden weight loss, intense fever, or night sweats.
  • Seem to have pus, or you see red streaks around the swelling. 

To find out what’s causing your swollen lymph nodes, your doctor will probably need to examine your medical history to find out more about how and when your lymph nodes became swollen and any other additional symptoms that you are experiencing. 


If the swollen lymph nodes are close to your skin’s surface, the doctor might check them for firmness, texture, see if they are tender to the touch, and examine or observe the size. 


Typically the location of the swollen nodes can provide clues as to the root of the issue like if the node is in your neck, then the problem is probably centralized around your head. If the swollen nodes are in multiple locations, as is the case with generalized lymphadenopathy, then it could be harder to pin down the actual root issue.  


Your doctor may order blood tests to determine the underlying cause of the swelling and to determine if there is any risk of leukemia or infections. 


The physician may order x-rays or a computerized tomography (CT) scan to locate the root of the infection or check for tumors. It is also possible that the doctor may perform a biopsy on the swollen node by removing a sample or an entire node to examine the contents.

What Illnesses Cause Swollen Lymph Nodes? 

Since your lymph nodes are part of your immune system, which is your body’s internal mechanism to keep you healthy, any backup of lymphatic fluid from serious diseases or even common illnesses like a cold or the flu, can prevent your nodes from draining correctly and lead to swelling.


Some common infections that cause swollen lymph nodes are:

  • Ear infections
  • Strep throat
  • Mononucleosis
  • Measles
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Abscessed tooth

If your lymph nodes are swollen due to an infection, they may also become reactive nodes that grow larger as the infection worsens and feel uncomfortable or painful when touched. 


Some less common causes of swollen lymph nodes are: 

  • Cat scratch fever
  • Some sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Cancer

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that forms within the lymphatic system, which includes your lymph nodes and vessels. 


Hodgkin lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin disease, comes from the white blood cells that your body typically uses to fight infection. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer that forms in your body’s lymphocytes.  


If cancer doesn’t start in the lymphatic system, it is possible for other types of cancer that originate in other parts of the body to spread to the lymph nodes. 


If a tumor leaks cancer cells, they can get picked up by your lymphatic system and travel into your lymph nodes. Usually, the lymph nodes that are affected are the ones that have been fighting the hardest to kill the tumor and are closest to it. The cells that spread from the tumor could also attach themselves to the outside of a lymph vessel.

How Long Do Lymph Nodes Stay Swollen? 

Lymph nodes can remain swollen until the condition that caused the swelling goes away. For example, if you have strep throat and the lymph nodes in your neck feel swollen, the swelling should subside once the infection clears.

Treatment for Swollen Lymph Nodes

Once your doctor diagnoses the cause of the swelling, they can recommend the appropriate treatment to help resolve the issue. 


If the swollen area is sensitive to the touch or feels painful, you can: 

  • Use over-the-counter pain medication like Tylenol or naproxen. 
  • Apply a washcloth steeped in warm water over the affected area.
  • Rest to help speed your recovery.
  • Drink lots of fluids (unless you have a medical reason not to increase fluid intake). 
  • Lupus
  • Cancer

If your swollen lymph nodes are the result of a viral infection, then you’ll probably have to wait until the virus goes away. If the swelling is caused by a bacterial infection, then your doctor will most likely prescribe antibiotics. 


You shouldn’t pick at or squeeze your swollen nodes or attempt to stick a needle in it and drain it yourself. You could cause serious bleeding, further irritate or swell the lump, or cause any possible infections to worsen. 


If cancer is causing the swollen lymph nodes, then you might need surgery to remove the nodes, or chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

What Happens If Lymph Nodes are Removed?

Two person inside a surgery room

​Image via Pexels

Since lymph nodes form part of your lymphatic system which includes vessels to transport fluids, removing lymph nodes due to cancer or surgery, can cause build up of lymphatic fluid because there is no other way to assist with the drainage. 


When the lymphatic fluid runs into a dead end and builds up, it can cause a condition called lymphedema, which can lead to swelling in the arms and legs. 


It’s incredible to know what a crucial role a tiny swollen bean that you may feel underneath your skin plays in your well-being. It is vital to maintain a healthy immune system. It’s fascinating to learn about the scope of potential illnesses that a swollen lymph node could indicate while giving you a much-needed warning sign.

​Featured image via Pixabay

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