Swollen Lymph Nodes: Causes, Treatments and When to Go to the Doctor

Doctor feeling patient lyph nodes on neck.jpg

Lymph nodes, those small, often unnoticeable, bean-like structures that are spread throughout our body, play an important role in our immune system. When lymph nodes swell, they’re trying to keep our body healthy. Sometimes, they might puff up for reasons that don’t seem obvious.

Dr. Kevin Ree, DO, UnityPoint Health, explains why lymph nodes can sometimes get big and when to talk to a doctor.

What causes swollen lymph nodes?

Infections and inflammation are the most common reasons for swollen lymph nodes.

Dr. Ree says, “Our immune cells receive information about infections and inflammation in our body, and they share that information, which attracts even more cells. This causes your lymph nodes to enlarge, and often, feel tender.”

Swollen lymph nodes are common with bacterial or viral infections, such as COVID-19 or a sore throat.

Can allergies cause swollen lymph nodes?

When we encounter allergens such as pollen, pet dander or certain foods, our immune system may react by releasing histamine and other chemicals. This immune response to allergens can cause swollen lymph nodes in our body. If you have a history of particularly strong reactions to allergens, it’s more likely your lymph nodes may swell. The swelling is usually temporary and should resolve once the allergen is no longer present, or the allergic reaction is under control.

Can stress cause swollen lymph nodes?

It’s true that emotional stress can have a negative impact on the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections or an inflammatory response. However, stress isn’t directly tied to swollen lymph nodes.

Similarly, anxiety doesn’t cause swollen lymph nodes either. It’s more likely the anxiety you’re experiencing is making you hyperaware of your lymph nodes and their size. You may also feel anxious when you’re sick and your lymph nodes are swollen, although in this case, it’s the underlying infection that’s likely causing your lymph nodes to swell.

What signs and symptoms usually accompany swollen lymph nodes?

Dr. Ree says, “It depends if they’re reacting to an infection, inflammation or cancer. Typically, lymph nodes will enlarge, become firmer and tender when swollen.”

In addition, depending on the underlying cause for the swollen lymph nodes, symptoms may include:

Can you have swollen lymph nodes without being sick?

Yes, you can. There are a few reasons lymph nodes might swell when you’re not feeling actively sick. This includes:

What do swollen lymph nodes feel like?

Dr. Ree says, “Lymph nodes feel like firm little lumps that range from the size of a small pea to a bean.”

Swollen lymph nodes tend to be hard most of the time, too.

What do swollen lymph nodes look like?

While some lymph nodes can be felt based on how close they are to your skin, most often in your neck, armpits, groin or above your collar bones, you can’t otherwise see or feel lymph nodes if they’re a normal size.

If you’re sick, or are concerned about an underlying disease, your doctor may check for swollen lymph nodes in these areas of the body as they’re the most common places to spot the nodes.

Do swollen lymph nodes hurt?

A swollen lymph node is sometimes visible to the eye or can easily be felt when you touch the area. It may feel hard and tender to touch, although not all swollen lymph nodes are tender.

How long do lymph nodes stay swollen?

Dr. Ree says most lymph nodes will only stay swollen for a few days. There is an exception though. 

“Sometimes lymph nodes can calcify and stay enlarged for life in some people,” he says.

Calcification of a lymph node refers to deposits of calcium salts within the lymph node’s tissue. This can happen for a few reasons but is often the result of a long-term or chronic condition affecting the lymph node.

Some potential causes for a lymph node that won’t go down include:

  • Chronic inflammation: Long-lasting inflammation or chronic infections can lead to calcium deposits over time.
  • Granulomas: These are collections of immune cells. Certain infections can cause granulomas to calcify.
  • Healed infections: Calcification can happen in lymph nodes that have healed after an infection. This is a result of the body trying to repair and close off the affected tissue.
  • Tumors: Certain types of tumors can cause calcification.
  • Aging: As people age, calcification can naturally occur in the tissue, including lymph nodes.

What are swollen lymph node treatments?

Dr. Ree says, “Treating the cause of the infection or inflammation will take care of the swollen or reactive nodes.”

He adds, “You can relieve pain and tenderness from swollen lymph nodes by taking anti-inflammatory medications, but treating the infection or inflammation is what will ultimately help ease the pain.”

When should you see a doctor about swollen lymph nodes?

“Any time a lymph node, or several nodes, enlarge for more than just a few days, and you don’t feel sick in any way — it’s a good idea to get checked out. Also, if you have lymph nodes that don’t seem to improve after an illness, talk to your doctor,” Dr. Ree says.