Health A to Z
Swollen lymph glands are usually a sign of infection and tend to go down when you recover. However, they can sometimes have a more serious cause and may need to be seen by a 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 a cold or glandular fever. Less commonly, swollen glands may be caused by a non-infectious condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or even cancer.
See your GP if you have swollen glands and:
If necessary, your GP may request some tests to help identify the cause. These can include blood tests, an ultrasound scan or computerised tomography (CT) scan, and/or a biopsy (where a small sample of fluid is taken from the swelling and tested).
Swollen glands are usually caused by a relatively minor viral or bacterial infection, including:
The glands in the affected area will often become suddenly tender or painful. You may also have additional symptoms, such as a sore throat, cough, or fever.
These infections usually clear up on their own, and the swollen glands will soon go down. You will normally just need to drink plenty of fluids, rest and relieve the symptoms at home using over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
See your GP if your symptoms don't improve within a few weeks.
Less often, swollen glands may be the result of:
Click on the links above for more information on these conditions.
Occasionally, swollen glands can be a sign of cancer that has started elsewhere in the body and spread to the lymph nodes, or a type of cancer affecting the white blood cells, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma or chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.
Swollen glands are more likely to be caused by cancer if they:
See your GP if your glands have been swollen for more than a couple of weeks. The swelling is probably the result of a non-cancerous condition, but it's best to be sure by getting a proper diagnosis.