Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011
Swollen lymph glands are usually a sign of infection and tend to go down when you recover. However, if the swelling continues, see your doctor.
Lymph glands (also called lymph nodes) are pea-sized lumps of tissue that contain white blood cells. These help to fight bacteria, viruses and anything else that causes infection. They are an important part of the immune system and are found throughout the body.
The glands can swell to more than a few centimetres in response to infection or disease. Swollen glands, known medically as lymphadenopathy, may be felt under the chin or in the neck, armpits or groin, where they can be found in larger clumps.
Many different types of infection can cause swollen glands, such as the common cold or glandular fever. Less commonly, the cause of swollen glands may be an immune system disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis, or even cancer.
The following information includes the most likely causes of swollen glands and explains when you should see a doctor. However, do not use this information to diagnose yourself, and see a GP for a proper diagnosis if you're worried about swollen glands. If necessary, they will do a biopsy (take a small tissue sample from the lump) to find out the cause.
Common causes of swollen glands
Swollen glands are usually caused by a local infection. This is an infection that is contained in a particular area of the body, such as the head and neck, and doesn't spread. Typical examples are:
- the common cold
- an ear infection
- a dental abscess
- cellulitis (a skin infection)
The glands in the area will become tender or painful.
Local infections usually clear up on their own, and the swollen glands will soon go down. You will usually just need to drink plenty of fluids, rest and relieve the symptoms at home using over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Other viral infections
Swollen glands may also be caused by a viral infection that enters the blood and affects the whole body. Causes include:
- glandular fever
If you're a young adult with persistent swollen glands in your neck, you probably have glandular fever. This usually causes a sore throat and high temperature as well.
Rubella causes a distinctive red or pink rash, as well as swollen glands behind your ears, at the back of your head and around your neck.
As with local infections, you should recover from these viral infections without needing to see a GP. You can manage your symptoms at home with over-the-counter medicines.
Bacterial infection and blood poisoning
A much more serious cause of swollen glands is a bacterial infection that has taken hold and has the potential to spread and cause blood poisoning. This is a life-threatening bacterial infection of the blood that is a medical emergency.
Someone with blood poisoning will look and feel extremely ill and will have a fever and chills that rapidly get worse. Find out more about the symptoms of blood poisoning. Blood poisoning can occur after an infection anywhere in the body. Call 999 for an ambulance if you think this is the cause of swollen glands.
Widespread bacterial infections will need antibiotic treatment, so if you're concerned you may have a severe infection, see your GP straight away.
Less commonly, what appears to be a swollen gland may be a cancerous growth. Generally, this is only the case if the lump:
- slowly gets bigger
- is in an unusual place
- is painless and firm or hard when you touch it
The cancer may have started somewhere else in the body, such as the breast, and spread to the nearest lymph glands (in this case, the lymph glands in the armpit). Alternatively, it could be cancer of the white blood cells, such as lymphoma or leukaemia.
If you're middle-aged or older and have an unexplained, persistent lump or swelling in your neck, see your GP for an urgent referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist. This is to rule out nasopharyngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer.
If you're a young adult with persistent swollen glands, the cause could be cancer of the lymph glands (although it's much more likely to be glandular fever).
It's important to see your doctor if your glands have been swollen for two weeks (see box, above left).
Unusual causes of swollen glands
In rarer cases, swollen glands may be the result of:
- cat scratch fever - a bacterial infection caused by a scratch or bite from a cat (this is more common in children)
- measles - a viral infection that causes distinctive red or brown spots on the skin
- lupus - where the immune system starts to attack the body's joints, skin, blood cells and organs, causing fatigue, joint pain and a skin rash
- rheumatoid arthritis - where the immune system starts to attack the tissue lining the joints, leading to difficulty moving and a breakdown of bone and cartilage
Click on the links above for more information on these conditions.
When you should see a doctor
See your doctor if:
- you also have a sore throat or find it difficult to swallow or breathe
- you also have unexplained weight loss or a persistent fever
- your glands feel hard or don’t move when you press them
- your glands have been swollen for more than two weeks or are getting bigger
- your glands are swollen for no apparent reason and you don't feel unwell