Swollen Lymph Nodes in Neck Explained

Medically Reviewed By Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
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Swollen lymph nodes in the neck can be a sign of an infectious disease, such as the common cold, mumps, rubella, strep throat, ear infection, or mononucleosis, as well as an infected wound. Less commonly, swollen neck lymph nodes can also indicate certain types of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or Hodgkin’s disease (Hodgkin lymphoma).

Lymph nodes are an important part of your body’s immune system. Your body relies on the lymphatic system to fight off germs, infections, and abnormal substances such as cancer cells.

Learn more about the causes and treatment options for swollen neck lymph nodes here.

What causes swollen neck lymph nodes?

a young boy is resting with a cold
Helen Rushbrook/Stocksy United

The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes in the neck is a viral infection such as the common cold. Bacterial infections that can cause swollen neck lymph nodes include an infected tooth and strep throat. Immune system disorders and some types of cancer can also lead to swollen neck lymph nodes.

The vast majority of people with swollen lymph nodes will not have a cancerous or bacterial cause. This is especially the case in children.

Common infectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

The more common infectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes include viral and bacterial infections. Left untreated, some of these diseases can lead to serious complications and secondary illnesses. Infections that commonly cause swollen neck lymph nodes include:

Treating common infectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

Treatment of swollen neck lymph nodes due to infectious causes may include:

  • treating the underlying cause
  • antibiotic treatment
  • antiviral therapy
  • antifungal therapy

Learn how to treat the flu at home here.

Other infectious causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

Less common, but potentially life threatening infectious diseases that cause swollen neck lymph nodes include:

  • HIV
  • cat scratch fever (bacterial infection from being scratched or bitten by a cat that carries the bacteria)
  • cellulitis (bacterial skin infection)
  • infected wound
  • certain sexually transmitted infections
  • toxoplasmosis (parasitic infection)
  • tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs)

Treating less common causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

Treating the less common causes of swollen neck lymph nodes will depend on the cause itself.

Autoimmune diseases that cause swollen neck lymph nodes

Swollen neck lymph nodes can also be caused by problems with the immune system itself, such as:

Treating autoimmune causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

The treatment options for autoimmune causes of swollen neck lymph nodes will depend on the causes, for example:

Cancers that can cause swollen neck lymph nodes

The most notable life threatening diseases that cause swollen neck lymph nodes are different types of cancers including:

  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Hodgkin’s disease)
  • leukemia
  • metastasized cancer that has traveled to the lymph nodes
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • head and neck cancer

Treating cancerous causes of swollen neck lymph nodes

Treatment for swollen neck lymph nodes will depend on the cause.

Learn to tell the difference between a lump and a lymph node here.

Medications that can cause swollen neck lymph nodes

Medications that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:

  • allopurinol
  • penicillin
  • sulfonamides
  • hydralazine
  • atenolol
  • primidone
  • captopril
  • carbamazepine
  • cephalosporin(s)
  • gold
  • phenytoin
  • pyrimethamine
  • quinidine 
  • sulindac

If you are taking a medication that is causing your lymph nodes to swell, your doctor may recommend stopping that medication, swapping to another, and re-evaluating later if needed. Do not stop taking any medications without the approval of your doctor.

What other symptoms might occur with swollen neck lymph nodes?

Swollen neck lymph nodes often occur with other symptoms that vary in severity depending on the underlying cause.

Symptoms that may occur along with swollen neck lymph nodes

Swollen neck lymph nodes may occur with other symptoms, including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

In some cases, swollen neck lymph nodes may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life threatening condition that should be evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms:

How do doctors treat swollen lymph nodes in the neck?

Viral infections that cause swollen neck lymph nodes can often be treated with self-care measures at home and the swelling will go away as your body fights off the infection. Self-care measures include rest, drinking plenty of fluids, warm compresses, and over-the-counter pain relievers.

However, some infections that are due to bacteria or other pathogens need medical attention. 

Seek prompt medical care if your lymph nodes have been swollen for more than 2 weeks, feel irregular, or are red, tender, hard, or if swelling is increasing.

What are the potential complications of swollen neck lymph nodes?

Swollen neck lymph nodes due to a viral infection often get better without treatment.

For persistent or chronic swelling, redness, and pain, it is important to seek medical care because these are symptoms of a possible bacterial infection. Bacterial infections will need to be treated with antibiotics and a treatment plan designed by your doctor. Left untreated, a localized bacterial infection can spread to the blood and quickly become life threatening.

In addition, untreated or poorly controlled lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers can spread and lead to loss of life.

Summary

Swollen neck lymph nodes are enlarged lymph nodes in the neck area and under the chin. Lymph nodes are small clusters of immune cells that function as part of the body’s immune system.

Swollen neck lymph nodes can result from infection, malignancy, and autoimmune disorders. Swollen neck lymph nodes are also known as lymphadenitis, lymphadenopathy, swollen nodes, or swollen glands.

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Medical Reviewer: Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 30
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