Swollen lymph nodes: Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

Swollen lymph nodes appear as lumps in parts of the body where they are present and it can cause tension in the affected person as he keeps wondering about its cause. In this article, we shall discuss what are lymph nodes, why lymph nodes are swollen, how to diagnose them and how to treat them.

What are the lymph nodes?

swollen lymph nodes
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Our body had several blood vessels which carry blood throughout our body. Similarly, we have a lymphatic system which contains a network of lymphatic vessels throughout the body. The lymphatic system is the fighter system of our body which protects us from several ailments and infections.

Our lymphatic system also contains lymph nodes in several regions of our body like neck, behind the ear, above clavicle or collarbone, in the groin, in underarms, etc. These lymph nodes undertake the filtration process of the lymphatic fluid.

We have three types of blood cells in our blood. They are the white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The white blood cells help to fight the infections in our body. The lymph nodes contain these white blood cells and they help to fight the infections like bacteria and viruses.

Causes of Swollen lymph nodes:

There are several causes for the development of swelling of lymph nodes or lymphadenopathy. Let us try to understand below:

Minor Infections:

Infections of various microbes or bugs can cause swelling of lymph nodes. It can be due to bacterial, viral or fungal infections. Viral infections like the common cold, flu and infectious mononucleosis can cause swelling of lymph nodes. The common cold generally causes swollen lymph nodes in neck.

Bacterial infections like Strep throat, tonsillitis can also be a reason for swollen lymph nodes. Fungal infections and different infections of the skin can also lead to lymphadenopathy.

Severe Infections:

Sometimes a person might catch a severe infection which can cause swelling of lymph nodes. It can be due to infections like HIV, Toxoplasmosis, Herpes infections, Tuberculosis, Measles, Lyme disease, etc.

As there is a multitude of infections which cause swollen lymph nodes, we cannot determine the cause of the lymphadenopathy without the help of proper history, physical exam and investigations.

Immune disorders:

There are several immune system disorders which can present with lymph node swelling. One of them is SLE or Systemic lupus erythematosus which affects multiple systems of the body like joints, heart, lungs, eyes, etc.

It can also be caused by rheumatoid arthritis which causes joint pains in multiple joints along with morning stiffness. Swollen lymph nodes can also be caused by Sjogren’s syndrome in which the affected person has dryness of mouth and dryness of eyes.

Cancers:

Although swollen lymph nodes are most commonly caused by infections and that too viral infections, they can also be caused by some cancers at times. So, we should never neglect a lymph node swelling without knowing the exact cause of it. Swelling of lymph nodes can be caused by several cancers lymphoma, leukaemia, Kaposi sarcoma, etc.

Sexually Transmitted Infections:

Sexually transmitted infections can cause swollen lymph nodes in the groin region or the folds between thighs and trunk. Some examples of such infections include syphilis and gonorrhoea. They also cause genital ulcers, urethral discharge and many other symptoms apart from swollen lymph nodes.

Diagnosis of swollen lymph nodes:

To diagnose the cause of swollen lymph nodes, your doctor will ask you history about when the swelling developed, is it painful or not, and about all other symptoms that you have. He will then do a physical examination to feel the lymph nodes and its surrounding areas.

He might order blood tests like CRP, ESR and CBC or complete blood picture to see if you have any infection and inflammation in your body. If he thinks it is necessary, he might order imaging studies like an ultrasound of the lymph node containing area, etc.

In certain instances, the doctor might perform FNAC or fine-needle aspiration cytology or lymph node biopsy to take a sample from the lymph node and do the pathological exam. This helps in finding out the cause of the swollen lymph nodes.

When to see a doctor for swollen lymph nodes:

Generally, if the swelling of the lymph nodes is caused by an infection, the swelling will subside after the infection had subsided. This can take a few weeks, like around 2 weeks. But, if your infection persists beyond this time, you will need to consult your physician.

You will also need to see your doctor if you feel that your lymph nodes are feeling hard, not moving freely, etc. You also need to consult your doctor if you have any other symptoms like persistent fever, loss of weight, anorexia or loss of appetite, excess sweating at night, etc along with swollen lymph nodes.

Treatment of Swollen lymph nodes:

The treatment of swelling of lymph nodes depends on the cause of the lymphadenopathy. If the swelling is caused by bacterial infections, you will need to take antibiotic medicines. If it is caused viral infections, most likely it will clear on its own and you don’t need to take medicines for it.

But for some viral infections like chickenpox and Herpes, you might need to take antiviral medications like Acyclovir. If the swelling of lymph nodes is being caused by fungal infections, you will need to take antifungal medicines. All these antimicrobial medicines are prescription medicines.

You can also do supportive measures like drinking plenty of fluids, taking adequate rest, taking vitamin supplements, eating fruits, etc to help get rid of the causative microbial infection fast.

If you are having any other cause of swelling of lymph nodes like immune system disorders or cancers, the treatment will be directed at the cause.

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