The lymph nodes which are also called lymph glands help the human body to stay away from diseases. The lymph nodes act as a filter to trap viruses, bacteria and other infective agents which can bring about disease. The neck, armpits and groin are common regions where lymph node swellings are present. During an infection, the lymph nodes can become swollen. It is important to investigate the reason for your swollen lymph nodes. Otolaryngologists can help in identifying the reason for swollen lymph nodes.
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What are lymph node swellings?
The lymph nodes are part of the defense system of an individual. They are small, round structures. These lymph nodes collect and filter fluids along with waste materials and other microbes. Each human has hundreds of lymph nodes with prominent ones being present on the sides of the neck, under the jaw, armpits and the groin.
The lymph fluid enters and leaves the lymph nodes around the body before entering back into the chest. When this happens, it collects and traps the disease-causing microbes and waste products which are disposed of. The rest of the fluid is released back into the bloodstream, along with proteins and salts. The lymph nodes have white blood cells which help to destroy infections. A temporary infection can cause the lymph nodes to swell. This swelling is the result of immune cell activity of lymph nodes. The swelling of lymph nodes occurs at the related infection areas. As an example, the lymph nodes of the ear can swell due to an ear infection.
How to know if lymph nodes are swollen?
Lymph nodes when swollen are tender and generally painful. . The swellings in the lymph nodes may be the size of a pea or larger. Individuals can check if the lymph nodes are swollen by pressing around it.
Some of the other symptoms to watch out for include:
- Respiratory tract infection symptoms like a runny nose, fever and sore throat
- General inflammation of the lymph nodes in the body. Patients with HIV or mononucleosis may experience such kind of a condition.
- Firm, quickly multiplying nodes, which is possible in a malignancy or lymphoma
- High fever with night sweats
What are the causes of swollen lymph nodes?
There can be many different reasons for lymph node swelling. The swelling of lymph nodes is an indication that the lymphatic system is working. Some reasons why lymph node swellings occur include:
Infections: It is mostly viral infections that bring about common cold, flu, tonsillitis, mononucleosis, gum infections. In addition there could be staphylococcus infections, streptococcus infections, fungal infections and skin infections. More severe infections include measles, chickenpox, TB, HIV and toxoplasmosis.
Immune system disorders: Conditions which can bring about lymph node swelling includes lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and sjogren’s syndrome.
Cancer: Swollen lymph nodes may result during conditions such as leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin disease and Kaposi sarcoma. Usually, males over 40 years with white skin have a high chance of having lymphoma. Malignant nodes are hard and rubbery.
Swelling in the lymph nodes maybe due to sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhoea and syphilis.
What are the ways by which swollen lymph nodes are diagnosed?
It is important to contact an ENT doctor and let him know if there has been injury or an illness. The ENT doctor will take a medical history. Giving the medical history too will be important as it helps in finding a diagnosis. The doctor will perform a physical examination to check the size and tenderness of the lymph nodes. Blood tests may also be done to check the existence of certain diseases.
The ENT doctor may order imaging tests to evaluate the lymph nodes. These include X-rays, ultrasound scans and CT scans. If needed an MRI scan maybe ordered. A biopsy may be done for further evaluation to see a malignancy is present.
How are swollen lymph nodes treated?
The infection may settle on its own without any treatment at times. The ENT specialist may sometimes want to observe the lymph nodes without any treatment to see the progress. However, if it is due to a bacterial infection, then antibiotics may be prescribed. Viral infections may be treated using antiviral medications. Pain and inflammation may be relieved using pain relieving agents. If the swelling is due to a cancer, then chemotherapy may be used to reduce the tumor or removed completely.
Can swollen lymph nodes be prevented?
The best way to prevent swollen lymph nodes is preventing infection. Some ways to reduce infection includes:
- Good oral hygiene
- Proper hand washing
- Being up to date on vaccinations like the flu shot
- Avoiding contact with people with contagious infections and sharing personal items
- Safe sexual contact
- Being careful with pets
When should you see a doctor?
If you experience severe symptoms and the lymph nodes are very painful, then it is advisable to see an ENT doctor. Lymph nodes which are swollen and hard need intervention immediately as it could be a sign of cancer.