Lymph Nodes Work to Fight Infection
By: Dan Palmquist, M.D.
Lymph nodes. Everyone has them. Most of us don’t think much about them unless we are suffering from some sort of illness, because the lymph nodes start working when your body needs to fight germs, infections and other foreign substances. Other things, like abscess or cancer, can cause your lymph nodes to become enlarged, but by far the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes is infection.
Lymph nodes are part of the immune system. They are small ball-shaped organs filled with white blood cells called macrophages and lymphocytes. These white blood cells work as filters to trap pathogens and remove them from circulation.
Lymph nodes are found throughout the body. It’s estimated that the average person has between 500 to 700 individual nodes. Common areas where lymph nodes can be felt (with the fingers) include the: armpit, groin, neck, under the jaw and chin, behind the ears and back of the head. The location of the swollen lymph nodes can help determine the possible cause of the underlying problem.
You may be familiar with the term “swollen glands.” This refers to the enlargement of one or more lymph nodes, and often refers to the lymph nodes located on either side under your jaw on the sides of your neck. They become swollen when the lymph nodes are fighting an infection such as:
• the common cold
• the flu
• strep throat
• ear infection
• an abscessed or impacted tooth
• mouth sores.
Immune or autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and HIV can also cause swollen lymph nodes.
Certain cancers can also cause the lymph nodes to swell. Because lymph nodes filter cancer cells, they can become cancerous if there is a mass that is attempting to spread throughout the body. The presence of cancer cells in a lymph node is significant in that it can be used to determine the stage to which a cancer has progressed, which impacts treatment and prognosis.
Most often, when your lymph nodes become swollen, it means that your body is working to fight an infection and your lymph nodes are doing the job they were made to do. In essence, they are reacting exactly how they are supposed to react when an infection enters your body.
The swelling can cause some discomfort and soreness; this should dissipate within a couple of days. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, can help treat the discomfort. Warm compresses can also be used to relieve your discomfort. Get plenty of rest and hydrating liquids such as water or herbal tea. After the pain disappears, the lymph nodes themselves may remain swollen for a few weeks after the infection has cleared.
In most cases, swollen lymph nodes indicate an illness or infection that can be treated successfully at home. There are certain instances, however, where swollen lymph nodes warrant a call to your doctor. Contact your medical professional if:
• Your lymph nodes are swollen for several weeks or they continue to get larger.
• They remain red and tender for more than a few days.
• They feel hard, irregular and are fixed in place.
• You experience fever, night sweats or unexplained weight loss.
• The person affected is a child with a node that is swollen bigger and 1/2-inch in diameter.
Lymph nodes – you hardly know they are around until they go to work. Lymph nodes are located throughout the body and function as part of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. They filter pathogens such as bacteria and cancer cells from the body. When lymph nodes go to work, they swell and become tender. This is the body’s way of fighting off illness and most often responds to at-home treatment. If pain and swelling persists for more than a few days, contact your doctor to rule out a more serious condition.
Dr. Palmquist is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.