To diagnose what might be causing your swollen lymph nodes, your doctor may need:
- Your medical history. In addition, your doctor will want to know when and how your swollen lymph nodes developed and if you have any other signs or symptoms.
- A physical exam. Your doctor will also want to check lymph nodes near the surface of your skin for size, tenderness, warmth and texture. The site of your swollen lymph nodes and your other signs and symptoms will offer clues to the underlying cause.
- Blood tests. Depending on what your doctor suspects is causing your swollen lymph nodes, certain blood tests may be done to confirm or exclude the suspected underlying condition. The specific tests will depend on the suspected cause, but most likely will include a complete blood count (CBC). This helps evaluate your overall health and detect a range of disorders, including infections and leukemia.
- Imaging studies. A chest X-ray or computerized tomography (CT) scan of the affected area may help determine potential sources of infection or find tumors.
- Lymph node biopsy. Your doctor may have you undergo a biopsy. He or she will remove a sample from a lymph node or even an entire lymph node for microscopic examination.
Swollen lymph nodes caused by a virus may return to normal after the viral infection resolves. Antibiotics are not useful to treat viral infections. Treatment for swollen lymph nodes from other causes depends on the cause:
- Infection. The most common treatment for swollen lymph nodes caused by a bacterial infection is antibiotics. If your swollen lymph nodes are due to an HIV infection, you'll receive specific treatment for that condition.
- Immune disorder. If your swollen lymph nodes are a result of certain conditions, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, treatment is directed at the underlying condition.
- Cancer. Swollen nodes caused by cancer require treatment for the cancer. Depending on the type of cancer, treatment may involve surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If your swollen lymph nodes are tender or painful, you might get some relief by doing the following:
- Apply a warm compress. Apply a warm, wet compress, such as a washcloth dipped in hot water and wrung out, to the affected area.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. These include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
- Get adequate rest. You often need rest to aid your recovery from the underlying condition.
Preparing for your appointment
If you have swollen lymph nodes, you're likely to start by first seeing your family doctor. When you call to set up your appointment, you may be urged to seek immediate medical care if you're experiencing severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing or swallowing.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
- Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, ask if you need to do anything in advance.
- List any symptoms you've been experiencing, and for how long. Among other symptoms, your doctor will want to know if you've had flu-like symptoms, such as a fever or sore throat, and may ask whether you've noticed changes in your weight. Include on your list every symptom, from mild to severe, that you've noticed since your lymph nodes began to swell.
- Make a list of all recent exposures to possible sources of infection. These may include travel abroad, hiking in areas known to have ticks, eating undercooked meat, being scratched by a cat, or engaging in high-risk sexual behavior or sex with a new partner.
- Make a list of your key medical information, including other conditions you're being treated for and the names of the medications that you're taking. Include every prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drug you use, as well as any vitamins and supplements.
- List questions to ask your doctor.
For swollen lymph nodes, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's causing my symptoms?
- What are other possible causes for my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- What treatment do you recommend?
- How quickly will I start to feel better?
- Am I contagious? How can I reduce the risk of infecting others?
- How can I prevent this from happening in the future?
- I have these other health conditions. Do I need to change the treatments I've been using?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing for me?
- Do you have any brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- What are your symptoms?
- When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
- Have your affected lymph nodes gotten larger over time?
- Are your affected lymph nodes tender?
- Have you been experiencing a fever or night sweats?
- Have you lost weight without trying?
- Do you have a sore throat or difficulty swallowing?
- Have you experienced any difficulty breathing?
- Have your bowel habits changed?
- What medications are you currently taking?
- Have you recently traveled to another country or to tick-inhabited regions? Did anyone who traveled with you get sick?
- Have you recently been exposed to new animals? Were you bitten or scratched?
- Have you recently had sex with a new partner?
- Do you practice safe sex? Have you done so since you became sexually active?
- Do you smoke? For how long?
What you can do in the meantime
While you wait for your appointment, try easing your discomfort by using warm compresses and an OTC pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).