A lymph node is a small, round or bean-shaped cluster of cells covered by a capsule of connective tissue. The cells are a combination of lymphocytes — which produce protein particles that capture invaders, such as viruses — and macrophages, which break down the captured material. Lymphocytes and macrophages filter your lymphatic fluid as it travels through your body and protect you by destroying invaders.
Lymph nodes are located in groups, and each group drains a specific area of your body. You may be more likely to notice swelling in certain areas, such as in the lymph nodes in your neck, under your chin, in your armpits and in your groin. The site of the swollen lymph nodes may help identify the underlying cause.
The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes is an infection, particularly a viral infection, such as the common cold. However, there are other types of infections, including parasitic and bacterial, and other possible causes of swollen lymph nodes. They include:
- Strep throat
- Ear infections
- Infected (abscessed) tooth
- Skin or wound infections, such as cellulitis or erysipelas
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) — the virus that causes AIDS
- Certain sexually transmitted infections, such as syphilis
- Toxoplasmosis — a parasitic infection resulting from contact with the feces of an infected cat or eating undercooked meat
- Cat scratch fever — a bacterial infection from a cat scratch or bite
Immune system disorders
- Lupus — a chronic inflammatory disease that can target your joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart and lungs
- Rheumatoid arthritis — a chronic inflammatory disease that targets the tissue that lines your joints (synovium)
- Lymphoma — cancer that originates in your lymphatic system
- Leukemia — cancer of your body's blood-forming tissue, including your bone marrow and lymphatic system
- Other cancers that have spread (metastasized ) to lymph nodes
Other possible, but rare causes include certain medications, such as the anti-seizure medication phenytoin (Dilantin), and preventive medications for malaria.
Jan. 02, 2014
- Longo DL, et al. Harrison's Online. 18th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2012. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=4. Accessed Aug. 25, 2013.
- Fletcher RH. Evaluation of peripheral lymphadenopathy in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 25, 2013.
- Lymphadenitis. The Merck Manuals: The Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/dermatologic_disorders/bacterial_skin_infections/lymphadenitis.html. Accessed Aug. 25, 2013.
- Motyckova G, et al. Why does my patient have lymphadenopathy or splenomegaly? Hematology and Oncology Clinics of North America. 2012;26:395.
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