Swollen glands 

  • Overview

Introduction 

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

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, your GP may request one of the following tests 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 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:

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. Read more about the symptoms of glandular fever.

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. Read more about the symptoms of rubella

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

In rare cases, a bacterial infection that has taken hold may have 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.

Cancer

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.

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.

Page last reviewed: 30/01/2013

Next review due: 30/01/2015

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Comments

The 14 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Orogenesis said on 27 August 2014

I'm jordan, 19 years old and my glands have been up for 3 years. I'm my family there is rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ankylosing spodilitis, Hughes syndrome, and a lot of cancers. I have been going to the doctors at least once a month for the last 3 years as the doctors do not think I'm anything more than a hypochondriac.every time I've been to the doctors my viscosity has been far above range. Two years ago I was diagnosed with glandular fever, my GP said it would go within a few months to a year. I have had painfull and swollen glands in my groin and neck for 3 years and the doctors tell me that's normal. Most recently went to the doctors because I now have a lump behind my ear. It feels like my glands in my neck and groin, but this one causes headaches and a ringing noise when I lie down. Recently been referred to the Cfs department at my local hospital. But until that appointment I have to feel complete exhaustion and pain all over my body? I'm just wondering whether my doctor has told me a load of rubbish just to get me out of his hair?
Thank you.

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chris_95 said on 29 May 2014

I am 18 years old, and i have had swollen glands in the right side of my neck several times before which have never lasted more than a day or two. However, this time it has lasted a 6 days so far and has not reduced in size. it is around 3-3.5cm in diameter. i do not feel ill, although have woken up in a puddle of sweat each morning. I have spoken to my parents and they think it's nothing. Although 2 days ago i had a smaller lump appear beside the right side of my throat. I have no idea what it could be, i haven't seen my local GP yet because i am being constantly told it will go down, this hasn't been the case so far. it isn't painful to touch/press.. just very round and firm. Any advice would be great.

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Swollen right neck gland said on 10 May 2014

Symptoms. For the last two years my right lymph node has been swollen. It's fluctuated from it's early fruition of the size of a golf ball to a large marble. It's not painful or sore to touch, but since it's appearance I've had deep boil like spots along the jawline, which massively bother me.

Medical input. I did visit a doctor after about a month, I don't like to bother doctors with trivial matters, who sent me for a scan and the radiologist didn't identify any cancer traces, but the documents were lost between the hospital and the doctors, so I never received any follow up.

History. I was fortunate, up until that point in my life I never had spots. I have regular periods. I have been taking microgynon 30 for the last 5 years.

Background. 31, female, eat healthily, drink at least 2 litres of water per day, very active - not just saying that, I race triathlons, surf, ski, endurance race etc.

Can anyone assist?

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elsiemay100 said on 24 March 2014

My 6 year old son has had an enlaged gland in his neck for years. The doctors have suggested investigation in the past but I was reluctant as he seemed fine in himself. He also had enlarged tonsils which he had removed, this had no affect on the gland. About a year ago he started complaining of severe pain in his stomach up under left ribs. Again I left this as it seemed to come and go..recently people have been commenting on his appearance. Asking if he is poorly, as he is pale with red tings around his eyes. I had not linked any of these things together untill someone said you can get glands in your stomach that can also enlarge. I have taken him to the doctors and he has been given a rapid referal..should I be concerned??? Also they mentioned his spleen. ? Not sure what I should be thinking..or preparing for!!?.

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wishuwell said on 21 March 2014

I'm a 51 year old male ex-smoker and would like to share my recent experiences with anyone else concerned about having swollen lymph nodes but have not yet had a diagnosis.

First of all - and I say this after a fair bit of reading - the probability of malignancy is low (less than 1%). This applies even if the swelling is painless, large, of long duration or assymetrical (isolated to one side) or if you are young or not so young. If your doctor wants to get you biopsied, even urgently, this doesn't mean he/she thinks you have cancer. It is simply better to eliminate the more serious causes early on. In my own case I had a single lymph node on the right side of my neck swell up for no apparent reason. I have had no other symptoms or any sign of infection. I had the lump (which is still there) for about 4 weeks before I decided to get it examined. I was sent for an immediate ultrasound guided needle biopsy and had to wait 2 weeks for the results - which came back negative. My consultant said I simply have a 'reactive node' and should go back in six weeks for a routine follow up.

If you're waiting for results or can't get a diagnosis it's hard not to worry (i did) but I hope this helps give some reassurance and perspective to anyone in the same position.

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annamd said on 22 February 2014

Im 26 years old. have had swollen glands under my chin for 4 weeks now and a persistent fever. I have also had chest pains breathlessness and fatigue for at least 12 months I have had flu 6 times in a year. I have had night sweats nightly for months. Itching almost daily with no known cause. I cant get out of bed most mornings I feel so unwell. All my drs will diagnose me with is "anxiety". They refuse to refer me to ENT. Some drs feel my lymph nodes and others claim theyre not there!! I have been told by a dr "I havent got all day!" When ive asked him for an indication of what could cause my symptoms. I was laughed at when I asked for a c.t scan! The nhs is a wonderful idea but a disgrace in practice. Drs just do not care enough about everyday people.

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DataRascal UK said on 12 October 2013

I'm male, 61, UK resident. I developed swollen lymph nodes, three in my neck in front of my left ear. This was diagnosed by having an ultrasound scan. My GP has requested a blood test. After reading the above article I am concerned as I believe I've had this before. I've decided to take over the counter Ibuprofen, 200mg.
I must say, the comments by, KIM85, 02 July 2013 are worrying. I think she needs to see a specialist.

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Maddy110 said on 05 July 2013

I've had what seems to be swollen lymph nodes in my groin for about a month or more now. I had a Dr check it out couple of weeks ago & she said to just keep an eye on it. It doesn't hurt but can be a bit worrying. It's on the right side and only noticed them because of an intermittent pain I get from somewhere around that region. It can be a dull ache or sharp shooting pain yet the lymph nodes remain painless so I don't know what's going on. I'm female and also have sharp shooting pain right near my cervix area too, don't know if it's all connected.

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kim_85 said on 02 July 2013

Ive had swollen glands for 3 days now, also fever with cold chills, nasty cough, soar throat, soar neck, pain through body, especially lower back, lung area and legs. Been taking paracetamol and doctor was supposed to come out to see me, as I've been bed ridden with this and instead of coming to see me, he just did me a prescription for strong antibiotics. Anybody any idea's what I have?

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Colette20 said on 10 March 2013

Docs are still trying to diagnose my swollen glands. As I'm a student, they automatically ran blood tests for glandular fever and a thyroid problem, but now they're looking to see whether it's a "lymph node infection". I've had it for 4.5 months now, so fingers crossed they figure it out soon! Will post further comment once diagnosed,

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bill LC said on 18 February 2013

I had swollen neck glands for 3 years that were sometimes painful. I was exposed to Valley Fever/coccidioides 30 years ago and have had skin problems and stomach problems. For a while I experienced very sharp stomach pains but they went away after I took diflucan. My skin problems would clear up after taking diflucan the first time. I have taken diflucan about a half dozen times over the last 10 years for 5-7 days. I live in the Northeast and doctors here are not familar with Valley Fever/coccidioides. I asked my dermatologist (who grew up in So. Cal for a longer treatment of diflucan. He prescribed 100mg for 60 days. My swollen neck glands disappeared, no more skin problems, my breathing improved and no more nail fungus. I was treated 8 mos ago and I am now fine. I wished I found out about diflucan 30 years ago.

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Badgrammar said on 30 December 2012

I've had a painful swollen lymph gland on my neck for 6 years now! I was initially sent to a hospital by my GP because of a pain in my neck I had been suffering from for months but even after they felt around my neck and on another occasion put a tube down my throat, they found nothing. Later, I discovered the swollen gland myself by feeling under my chin. I had the lump confirmed and then tested, which involved the doctor at the hospital injecting it to make it swell up before taking a sample. Fortunately, it turned out not to be cancerous. Eventually, I was referred to a hospital more than 20 miles from where I lived for an assessment for an operation. They didn't yet know if it was a swollen gland or if it was something else swollen. The doctor I saw there scared me. He talked casually to me while turning a scalpel between his two hands, twiddling it around like a toy. With a grin he told me that if it was a gland it would be quite a complicated operation and potentially problematic. He said he'd poke around and see what's there during the operation. He was terribly posh and seemed to be trying to act deliberately amateurish and off-putting, it was all a game to him. It was like he was saying, "Hey! Let's have a bit of fun. Let me operate on you!" I was told by other doctors that if I could live with the pain that would be better than having an operation so I was a bit reticent before I even went for the assessment so I put off the operation. One week later I saw another doctor for an ultrasound (which should've been done before I saw the previous doctor about the operation assessment) and I was told that it was a swollen gland probably caused by an old tooth infection and it might never go down. A year later, I asked if I could be referred back to the doctor, the one that was talking about operating on me because I was increasingly sick of the pain but my GP refused to refer me again because I cancelled the last operation.

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Tcollard said on 13 December 2012

Would be great if NHS GPs and specialists actually read this material. Why provide this information to the public when doctors ignore it anyway?

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sophiestiscali said on 20 April 2012

I have had swollen lyph glands 11months and doctors are not interested in finding out the cause

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