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Swollen glands

Your throat is sore, your head is on fire and you feel absolutely miserable. When you get to your surgery you'll notice that one of the first things your doctor does is feel the sides of your neck. What your GP is doing is looking for swollen lymph nodes, or swollen glands.

Swollen glands are a sign that your body is battling an infection or another type of illness. Read on to learn about some of the conditions that can cause swollen glands and find out what to do if you have one of them.

What are the lymph nodes?

Your lymph nodes are small, round or bean-shaped masses of tissue. They are part of the lymphatic system that helps your body fight infection and disease. As lymphatic fluid travels through the body, immune cells (called lymphocytes) in the lymph nodes trap bacteria, viruses and other potentially harmful substances and destroy them to help prevent their spread. They also keep fluid balance in check.

You're probably already familiar with the lymph nodes in your neck but there are hundreds of other lymph nodes scattered throughout your body. Other areas where you may be able to feel swollen lymph nodes include:

  • Behind the ears
  • Area under the jaw
  • Lower part of the back of the head
  • Armpits
  • Groin

The tonsils in the back of the throat are also a kind of lymph tissue and they can swell from illnesses such as tonsillitis.

How do I know that my lymph nodes are swollen?

Normally you shouldn't be able to feel your lymph nodes. They measure only about 1.3 cm (half an inch) across. When you get sick they can swell -- sometimes to two to three times their usual size -- to the point where you can distinctly feel them.

Other symptoms of swollen glands include:

  • Tenderness or pain when you press on them 
  • Symptoms of the underlying infection (fever, sore throat, mouth sore)
  • Red, warm, swollen skin over the lymph node
  • Lump

Swollen lymph nodes that are soft, tender and move easily are usually a sign of infection or inflammation. A hard lymph node that does not move and does not cause pain needs further evaluation by your doctor.

What causes swollen glands?

The most common causes of swollen glands include:

  • Bacterial infection, such as a sore throat
  • Mouth sores or tooth infection
  • Viral infection, such as glandular fever
  • Skin infection
  • Ear infection
  • Sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • Cancers such as leukaemia, Hodgkin's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and breast cancer
  • Immune system disorders, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and HIV infection
  • Side effect from a vaccine or from certain medications

Swollen gland treatments

Once the underlying illness has been treated, the glands usually go back to their normal size – however, sometimes they remain enlarged even after the cause has been resolved. How swollen glands are treated depends on what's causing them.

To relieve the discomfort of swollen glands and the illnesses that cause them, the following home care methods may help:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as paracetamol or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen. Never give aspirin to a child under the age of 16 because of the risk for Reye's syndrome.
  • Apply a warm, wet flannel to the area.
  • Get enough rest so that your body can recover from the illness.

Seek medical advice if your swollen glands are accompanied by:

  • High fever (over 40C or 104⁰F)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Skin overlying the swollen lymph node is red

Also, seek medical advice if the swollen lymph node's size becomes larger than 2.5 cm (one inch), the lymph node is very tender or hard, or doesn't go away after a month.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on October 11, 2012

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