Lymphadenitis: Your Guide to Inflamed Lymph Nodes

Medically Reviewed By Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
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Lymphadenitis refers to lymph nodes that have become enlarged, tender, and inflamed. This typically occurs due to a viral, fungal, or bacterial infection. Lymphadenitis can occur in one lymph node, or multiple nodes may be inflamed. There are around 600 lymph nodes in the human body. They are usually small and soft, and you may be able to feel them around the jaw, armpit, and groin areas.

If a lymph node becomes infected, it can increase in size and become painful. It may be possible to feel infected lymph nodes in other parts of your body.

Read on to learn more about lymphadenitis. This guide includes information about treatments, symptoms, and causes.

Quick facts about lymphadenitis

  • Lymphadenitis refers to enlarged and inflamed lymph nodes.
  • Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections can cause lymphadenitis.
  • One lymph node or multiple lymph node groups may become infected.
  • Lymph nodes can be painful, filled with pus, or draining fluid to the skin.

What is lymphadenitis?

A man has his hand on his neck.
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When lymph nodes become enlarged and inflamed, this is known as lymphadenitis. This typically occurs as a result of an infection.

It is possible for just one or a few lymph nodes to become infected. Alternatively, the infection may spread to multiple lymph node groups.

Lymphadenitis can be chronic, which means that it lasts a long time. Alternatively, it can be acute, meaning that it occurs suddenly and intensely.

Visit our infections and contagious diseases hub for more information.

Vs. lymphadenopathy

Lymphadenopathy refers to lymph nodes that are irregular in size and texture. When lymph nodes become irregular due to inflammation as a result of an infection, this is lymphadenitis.

Lymphadenopathy is particularly prevalent among young children. It can affect up to 90% of children ages 4–8 years.

What are the types of lymphadenitis?

There are two types of lymphadenitis: localized lymphadenitis and generalized lymphadenitis.

  • Localized lymphadenitis: This is when the infection reaches just one lymph node or a few lymph nodes nearby. An example of this is when the lymph nodes become inflamed due to a tonsil infection.
  • Generalized lymphadenitis: This occurs in at least two lymph node groups. It can occur due to an infection that spreads through the bloodstream or an illness that affects the entire body.

What are the symptoms of lymphadenitis?

The main symptom of lymphadenitis is a lymph node that is enlarged. A lymph node is enlarged if it measures at least half an inch in width.

Other symptoms of lymphadenitis can include:

  • painful lymph nodes
  • soft or matted lymph nodes
  • streaking of the skin over the lymph nodes
  • pus filled lymph nodes, or abscesses
  • fluid draining from the lymph nodes to the skin

Learn more about swollen lymph nodes here.

What are the treatments for lymphadenitis?

The treatment for lymphadenitis can depend on the type of infection that has spread to the lymph nodes. Examples of treatments include:

  • applying a warm compress to the affected area to alleviate pain
  • taking antibiotics, which you may be able to take orally or by injection
  • using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation
  • undergoing surgery to drain the fluid from the lymph nodes

Your doctor will recommend the best type of treatment for you. You can also contact your pharmacist for advice on which antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to take.

What can cause lymphadenitis?

Lymphadenitis typically occurs due to an infection that has spread to the lymph nodes. This infection can be bacterial, viral, or fungal.

Examples of infections and autoimmune conditions that can lead to lymphadenitis include:

How do doctors diagnose lymphadenitis?

To diagnose lymphadenitis, your doctor will carry out a physical exam. They will also ask questions about any other symptoms you are experiencing.

Your doctor may also ask questions about recent incidents that may have caused your symptoms. For example, you may remember having a cat scratch that led to an infection in the area where the lymph nodes have become inflamed.

Certain tests can help determine the type of infection you have. These tests can include:

  • blood tests
  • removing sample tissue from the lymph node for further examination
  • placing lymph node fluid into a culture to test for germ types

Learn about when to contact a doctor for swollen lymph nodes here.

Is it possible to prevent lymphadenitis?

Although it may not always be possible to prevent lymphadenitis, you can take steps to reduce the likelihood of the lymph nodes becoming enlarged and inflamed.

The best way to reduce the risk of lymphadenitis is to treat infections early. Make sure to cleanse any infected areas, and use antiseptic options on scratches or bites.

Regularly washing your hands can also help reduce the spread of infection.

Other frequently asked questions

Below are some other commonly asked questions about lymphadenitis. These questions have all been answered by Dr. Meredith Goodwin, M.D., FAAFP.

What happens if you do not treat lymphadenitis?

The important thing is to treat the underlying cause. If you do not treat an infection, it can spread and get worse. It might even become life threatening.

How long does it take for lymphadenitis to go away?

Often, the inflammation goes away in a few days when the underlying cause is treated. If the lymph node stays the same size or gets larger after a month, contact a doctor.

Is lymphadenitis serious?

Swollen lymph nodes by themselves are not serious, but if the swelling obstructs something else, they can be. The more worrisome issue is addressing the underlying cause.

A good analogy is to think of lymph nodes as volunteer fire departments. The building is empty until there is a fire (in this case, an infection). The firemen (lymph cells) then gather at the department (lymph node) and mobilize to fight the fire. When the fire is out, everybody goes home!

Learn more

Summary

Lymphadenitis refers to inflamed and enlarged lymph nodes. This typically occurs due to an infection, and this can be localized or more widespread.

Taking antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce pain and swelling. In some cases, a doctor may also recommend surgery to drain any pus.

Contact your doctor if you experience swollen, inflamed lymph nodes or any other symptoms of infection. The doctor can carry out tests to determine the cause of the inflammation and advise on the best course of treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 28
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