Lymph nodes get their name from the lymphatic system and the role of these small glands is to filter the clear fluid that passes through the lymphatic system known as lymph. Lymph nodes become swollen whenever there’s an infection or tumors.
The framework of the lymphatic system is similar to that of blood vehicles and it comprises channels that run throughout your body; the lymphatic fluid flows through this system. The lymph nodes store white blood cells which are responsible for destroying foreign and invading organisms.
The lymph nodes operate in the same way a military checkpoint does. Whenever harmful bacteria, abnormal or diseased cells, and viruses are passing through the lymphatic system, they get stopped at the lymph node. Anytime you are suffering from an illness or an infection, the lymph nodes amass the debris such as dead or diseased cells or bacteria.
Lymph nodes are strategically positioned underneath the skin throughout your body including:
- Under the jaw
- Above the collarbone
- On each side of the neck
- In the armpits and
- On each side of the groin
In the event of an infection in an area close to where they are located, the lymph nodes will swell. For example, an upper respiratory infection such as a common cold can result in the swelling of lymph nodes around the neck area.
What Causes the Lymph Nodes to Swell?
Having swollen lymph nodes is an indicator that the lymphatic system is working at eliminating foreign invaders from your body. Lymph nodes swell in reaction to infections, illness or stress.
Illnesses that cause the lymph nodes around the head and neck include:
- Colds or flu
- Sinus infection
- Ear infection
- Tooth infection
- Strep infection
- Mononucleosis (mono)
- Skin infection and
- HIV infection
More serious conditions including cancers or immune disorders can cause swelling of lymph nodes all over the body. Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are some of the immune system disorders that can trigger the swelling of lymph nodes.
Cancers that spread throughout the body also cause swelling of lymph nodes. Survival rate usually decreases whenever cancer spreads from one area to the lymph nodes. Lymphoma, cancer that affects the lymphatic system, also instigates swelling of lymph nodes.
Some types of medicine and allergic reactions to medicine can trigger the swelling of lymph nodes. In addition to that, anti-malarial and anti-seizure drugs can also bring about swelling.
Gonorrhea, syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections can trigger the swelling of lymph nodes around the groin area.
Other lymph node swelling catalysts include:
- Mouth sores
- Ear infections
- Cat scratch fever
- Hodgkin’s disease
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Metastasized cancer
Rashes and Lymph Nodes
A rash is caused by a variety of things and can be described as an inflammatory response that brings about changes to your skin including raised skin patches, scaly patches, itching, reddening of the skin and blistering.
As stated above, lymph nodes are responsible for filtering fluids inside your body before sending them to the circulating system for disposal. They are home to the infection-fighting cells. Under normal circumstances when you are healthy, you cannot feel the lymph nodes but when swollen they feel soft and round beneath your skin, like a pea or a bean. In some cases, they become hard.
Swollen lymph nodes a rash can develop together; let us look at the possible causes of these symptoms.
Treating Rashes and Swollen Lymph Nodes
Your doctor will attempt to diagnose and tackle the primary cause of your symptoms by looking at your medical history and assessing your symptoms. You can expect questions like:
- In the recent past, have you been exposed to a sick person?
- When did the symptoms start?
- Is there anything that sets off the symptoms?
Swollen lymph nodes and rash tend to rise from viral infections and antibiotics cannot treat this type of infection effectively. The doctor will recommend other forms of medication to bring relief to your system such as applying anti-itch creams to your skin or taking an antihistamine to minimize pain or itchiness caused by the rash.
Detecting Swollen Lymph Nodes
A lymph node that is swollen can be the size of a small pea or as large as a cherry and painful to touch. A person can also experience when they make certain moves. For example, if the lymph nodes under your jaw or on both sides of the neck are swollen, you may experience pain while chewing food or when turning your head in a particular way. If you run your hand below your jawline or over your neck, you can feel them and they may feel tender.
Swollen lymph nodes around the groin area can result in a person experiencing pain when bending or walking.
Other indicators or symptoms present alongside swollen lymph nodes include:
- Running nose
- Sweating and
Always consult your doctor if you suffer from any of the above symptoms or if the swollen lymph nodes are not accompanied by any other symptoms. Having swollen lymph nodes that are not tender can signal a more serious health problem such as cancer.
In some instances, swollen lymph nodes will decrease in size as the other symptoms fade away; however, if the swollen lymph node is painful or the swelling does not go down in a few days consult your doctor.
Appointment with Your Doctor
It is important to be open and let your doctor know if you recently had an injury or had been taken ill. This information will help your doctor diagnose the root of your symptoms. There are certain diseases or medications that trigger swollen lymph nodes so providing your medical history will also help the doctor come up with the proper diagnosis.
Having discussed your symptoms, the doctor will perform a physical exam which may consist inspecting the size of the lymph nodes and gently feeling them determine if they are tender.
The doctor may also request a blood test to rule out specific diseases or hormonal disorders.
If absolutely necessary, and with the intention of further evaluating the lymph nodes or any other part of your body that could have triggered the swelling, the doctor may send you for an imaging test. CT scans, X-Rays, MRIs and Ultrasound are some of the common imaging test employed in checking lymph nodes.
A lymph node biopsy can be done in the event further testing is required. The procedure is minimally invasive and comprises of thin needle-like tools being used to remove cell samples from the lymph node. The samples are then sent to a lab and tested for major diseases including cancers.
Preparing for Your Doctor’s Appointment
Think through and list down your symptoms including how long you have had them. Let your list comprise of all symptoms that you experienced since your lymph nodes started to swell whether mild or severe. It is likely that the doctor will want to know whether you have experienced flu-like symptoms for example fever or a sore throat or if you have noticed a change in your weight
Take note of any pre-appointment restrictions. When making the appointment, always ask if there is anything you need to do in advance.
List down recent exposures to likely sources of infection. This can be anything from eating undercooked meat, hiking in tick-prone areas, traveling abroad, sexual relations of any kind with a new partner or getting scratched by a cat.
List down key medical information. This includes any conditions that you are currently receiving treatment for and names of any medicines you are taking. Also, mention prescription or over-the-counter drugs that you are using including vitamins and supplements
Questions to ask the doctor. You would be surprised how many questions evaporate the minute you are with the doctor only to resurface after you have left.
Treatment for Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph nodes may shrink in size without any treatment and there are instances when the doctor may choose to monitor the swollen lymph nodes without treatment.
If there is an infection, the doctor may prescribe antiviral medication or antibiotics to get rid of the condition behind the swollen lymph nodes. Medications such as ibuprofen (Advil) or Aspirin can be prescribed to combat inflammation and pain.
Swollen lymph nodes instigated by cancer may not lessen in size up until the cancer is treated. Cancer treatment may include chemotherapy to reduce the tumor or removal of the tumor or any affected lymph nodes. Your doctor will go over the best treatment option for you.
Home Remedies for Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph nodes are an indication that there something amiss in your body. Infection is the most common cause and it stems from common colds, tonsillitis, gingivitis, abscessed tooth, mononucleosis, measles and skin infections.
Below are top 10 home remedies that provide relief for swollen lymph nodes
Gargling salty water can be beneficial in reducing inflammation and swelling in the lymph nodes around the neck area brought about by a throat infection.
- Add ½ teaspoon of salt to one cup of warm water and stir.
- Repeat this exercise several times daily for about a week.
Garlic has anti-inflammatory properties which can help bring down in the lymph nodes. In addition to easing symptoms, the antibiotic elements in garlic also cleanse the system and promote healing.
- Consume 2 or 3 cloves of garlic in their raw form and remember to add them to your cooking as well.
- Use garlic oil to massage the swollen area for a couple of minutes, at least 2 or 3 times on a daily basis.
- Garlic supplements can be taken in place of the above but only after consulting your doctor.
This natural remedy contains anti-inflammatory properties that can help alleviate pain and swelling. In addition, honey has antibacterial properties that will also aid the fight against the infection causing the swelling.
- Combine 1 to 2 teaspoonfuls of raw honey with fresh lemon juice and a cup of water. Drink this mixture two times a day for a week.
- Rub raw honey on the affected area and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes before wiping it off with warm water. Repeat this exercise 2 or 3 times a day till the swelling recedes.
Placing a warm compress on swollen lymph nodes is a time-tested remedy that yields results. This is because the hot temperature in the compress boosts blood circulation which reduces pain and swelling.
- Wet a clean washcloth in hot water making sure to wring out excess water.
- Place the warm washcloth on the affected area and hold it for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Repeat this exercise a couple of times on a daily basis until the swelling goes down.
If you can, wash the affected area with warm water a couple of times daily.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar has many uses and one of them is providing relief from swollen lymph nodes. This is because it creates an alkaline environment in your body, in addition to maintaining a healthy pH level.
Just like honey, it has antibacterial properties that help combat the infection causing the swelling. To achieve effective results use raw and unfiltered apple cider vinegar.
- Blend with water in equal parts. Dip a clean washcloth in the solution then rub it on the swollen area.
- Wait for at least 5 minutes then rinse off with warm water.
- Pat dry.
- Repeat this exercise once or two times a day.
- In addition, combine 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, with a little raw honey and water and drink it two times a day.
Anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties present in castor oil can help reduce swelling of the lymph glands
It also improves the circulation of the lymph all over the body which speeds up the removal of toxins and it also boosts your immune system.
- Massage cold-pressed castor oil gently on the swollen glands for 5 minutes.
- Place a warm compress on this very same area for at least 10 minutes.
- Repeat this exercise once or twice a day for a week.
Massaging the swollen lymph nodes is an effective remedy because it invigorates them in a way that helps them function normally and also helps lessen the accumulation of toxins in the nodes. If done over a period of time, massaging help reduce swelling.
- Gently massage the lymph nodes using your fingers for around 5 minutes.
- Repeat this two or three times a day until the swelling subsides.
- Alternatively, you can seek the services of a professional who will provide a lymph drainage massage.
A therapeutic herb, Turmeric is highly effective in reducing the swelling of the lymph glands, fighting infections and promoting healing. It contains anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties that help alleviate swelling and pain.
- Make a paste using turmeric powder – 1 tablespoonful and just enough honey.
- Apply this mixture onto the swollen area and wait for around 10minutes then rinse off with warm water.
- Do this twice daily for a week.
- In addition, add turmeric powder to warm milk and drink it twice daily.
- You also have the option of taking turmeric supplements but only after consulting your doctor.
The Echinacea contains potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that strengthen the lymphatic system and helps combat infection by purifying blood and lymph nodes.
- Rub Echinacea cream or ointment at least 2 or 3 times daily.
- Drink no more than 2 cups of Echinacea tea every day but do not exceed one week.
- The other alternative is to consume Echinacea supplements of 300mg two times a day for one week but again, only in consultation with your doctor.
It is important to avoid consuming this herb for more than a week. Anyone suffering from an autoimmune disorder should avoid this herb.
In order to treat lymphadenitis, herbalists recommend cleavers (scientific name, Gallium Aparine) which are also known as sticky weed and goosegrass.
Cleaver is a therapeutic herb that helps invigorate the performance of the lymphatic system so as to boost proper functioning which reduces swelling.
- Add two teaspoons of cleavers to a cup of hot water and allow it to marinade for about ten minutes. Strain and drink the resulting tea two or three times a day until improvements are noticed.
- The other option is to add twenty to thirty drops of cleaver tincture to water and drink the mixture every day.
Seek the approval of your doctor before using the cleavers herb.
- Drink 2 or 3 cups of green tea on a daily basis.
- Embrace a diet that is rich in iron, magnesium, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamins C and E.
- Stay away from alcoholic drinks which may worsen the situation.
- Avoid smoking including secondhand smoking.
- Get adequate rest.
- Take a warm shower or bath twice a day.
- Avoid stress – both physical and mental.
- Try exercising, meditation or acupuncture to keep symptoms at bay.
Cancer in the Lymph Nodes
Cancer can find its way into the lymph nodes by either starting there or metastasizing (spreading from somewhere else).
Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the lymph nodes and you can find more information about Lymphoma in Hodgkin Disease as well as in Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
Our primary focus in this section is cancer that begins somewhere else and metastasizes to the lymph nodes.
How Cancer Spreads to Lymph Nodes?
Cancer can and may spread from its primary site (where it started) to other areas within the body.
Cancer cells that separate themselves from a tumor can travel to other parts of the body via the bloodstream or through the lymph system. Cancer cells that travel through the bloodstream can reach distant organs however those that move through the lymphatic system are likely to end up in the lymph nodes. Whichever way they choose to travel, most of the break-away cancer cells are killed or die before they can begin growing somewhere else. It is likely that one or two may survive, settle in a new part, start growing and form new tumors. The medical term for the spreading of cancer is known as metastasis.
Several changes must occur before cancer cells break away and spread to new parts. They must first separate themselves from the original tumor; attach themselves to the exterior wall of a blood vessel or lymph vessel after which they will travel using the vessel wall and flow with the blood to a new organ or with the lymph to a lymph node.
When cancer develops inside lymph nodes, the lymph nodes close to the tumor are the ones that get affected since they are the ones working themselves off in an attempt to either filter out or destroy the cancer cells.
How to Diagnose Cancer in Lymph Nodes?
Under normal circumstances, lymph nodes are small and quite hard to find but this changes when there is an inflammation, infection of cancer- they become enlarged and sometimes noticeable and even felt especially those near surface of the skin. Presence of a few cancer cells in a lymph node may even go unnoticed and in this case, the doctor conducts tests for cancer by removing a part or all of the lymph node.
During an operation to remove primary cancer, the surgeon will also remove one or more of the lymph nodes in that area (region). The process of removing one lymph node is known as a biopsy. Lymph node dissection or lymph node sampling is the removal of many lymph nodes. Unfortunately, when cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it is likely to return even after surgery. Through removal and sampling of the lymph nodes, the doctor will be able to determine if there’s a need for more treatment after the tumor has been removed for example chemotherapy or radiation.
Doctors can conduct needle biopsy which is the collection of samples of one or several lymph nodes using needles. These samples are sent to a pathologist (a doctor who identifies illnesses using tissue samples) who scrutinizes them under a microscope to establish if they contain cancer cells.
As seen under a microscope, cancer cells in the nodes resemble those in the primary tumor i.e. they do not mutate. For example, breast cancer breakaway cancer cells that find their way to the lymph nodes will grow and look just like those in the breast cancer. The pathologist will prepare a report that details his findings. The report will indicate the presence (or lack of it), how much of it was seen and what it looks like.
What Happens When There’s Cancer in Lymph Nodes?
The situation varies from one case to another. If the cancer cells present in the lymph nodes are so few such that they require the use of special tests just to detect them, then the treatment plan may not be altered in any way.
Presence of a lot of cancer cells means that the large mass can be detected easily. Extracapsular extension refers to cancer that develops out of a lymph node and through a layer of linked tissues on the outside.
If nodes have more cancer cells, it may be an indication of fast-growing cancer and one that is likely to extend to other parts of the body. That said, if the doctors establish that only the lymph nodes closest to the primary cancer site have cancer cells, then they will conduct surgery to remove the primary tumor and nearby lymph nodes which just might get rid of all cancer.
Additional treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation will most likely be needed to deal with cancer that has moved to lymph nodes located far off from the primary cancer site
Cancer in Lymph Nodes Affects Cancer Stage
The type of cancer one has and the stage it is at are the two determinants of treatment. There are systems in place to help doctors assign the stage the cancer is at. The most well-known and frequently used staging system is called the TNM System. To break down the acronym T stands for tumor, N is for lymph nodes and the M stands for metastasis. If no cancer is detected in lymph nodes near the primary site then N is allotted a value of 0. In situations where nearby or far off nodes have cancer cells, N is allotted a number for example 1, 2 or even 3. The numbering depends on where the nodes are located, how many are affected, how large they are and the extent of cancer in them.
Cancers that have lower TNM numbers are easier to treat and present better chances of survival. To expound on this, cancer that has T1, N0, M0 is cancer that was detected early before it could spread. Here, T1 represents a small tumor, N0 means no lymph nodes are involved while M0 means no metastases were found. If you need more information on staging, read Staging or look at information about your type of cancer.
Lymph Node Removal Side Effects
Removal of nodes during surgery means that the lymph fluid in the affected area will have no means of draining off. This can cause a build-up of fluid as the lymphatic vessels find a dead end in the place the nodes used to be. This situation is referred to as Lymphedema and is prone to becoming a life-long problem. Chances of it occurring increase with the removal of more lymph nodes.
What Is Cancer-Related Lymphedema?
The build-up of lymphatic fluid inside the fatty tissues beneath your skin is what is referred to as Lymphedema. Swelling mostly occurs in the arms or legs following this build-up however other parts of the body including the abdomen (belly), neck, face, and genitals can be affected depending on where lymph nodes were removed.
It’s important to talk to your cancer care team about the risk of developing lymphedema and how it can be minimized if you have been treated or are being treated for cancer. Unfortunately, once chronic lymphedema sets in, there’s no chance for reversal or cure. Early detection and precise management can lessen the symptoms and prevent it from getting worse.
When Does Lymphedema Develop?
Immediately After Surgery: Temporary Lymphedema. A form of temporary (short-term) lymphedema can occur immediately after surgery or about 6 to 8 weeks following surgery or chemotherapy. It is mild in nature and disappears in a month or so.
In as much as this form of lymphedema does not last and fades away on its own, it is important to let your doctor know about it straight away. The affected area may be reddened and feel hot indicating infection, blood clot or another problem which needs to be addressed.
Temporary lymphedema can by treated keeping the affected arm or leg raised and taking anti-inflammatory medicine, should there be no other problem triggering the infection.
Months or Years After Treatment: Chronic Lymphedema. Chronic lymphedema develops slowly and over a period of time taking months or even years after treatment to manifest. Swelling may be mild or severe and a person can experience great discomfort stemming from the lymphatic fluid amassing in the skin and in the underlying tissues. Chronic lymphedema keeps nutrients from getting to the cells, hinders wound healing and causes infections.
Lymphedema can become chronic and require management; the key thing is to get help straight away. Caught early, Lymphedema is much easier to treat and it responds better to treatment.
Can You Prevent Lymphedema?
Prevention may not be possible for all cases of lymphedema however it is possible to reduce the chances of it developing. Use of modern surgical techniques during the removal of lymph nodes can help
- SLNB (Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy) is a major advancement in cancer surgery. It is used to identify the lymph nodes that a tumor drains into so that they can be tested for cancer. If the tests come back negative i.e. no cancer is present then doctor only removes a few lymph nodes. SLNB has been proven to minimize the risk of lymphedema.
- Axillary reverse mapping (ARM). In this technique, the surgeon applies a blue dye on the upper arm which helps him locate the nodes that drain the arm. The surgeon then attempts not to modify these lymph nodes. It is still not clear whether ARM helps reduce lymphedema.
In addition to the above, a person can resolve to do things that lower their risk of developing lymphedema. You can start by discussing the risk of developing it with your healthcare team and keeping an eye on triggers as well as early signs of lymphedema. This way, you will take the necessary steps to minimize your risk and adopt these measures as part of your everyday routine.