Lymph Nodes- Function and Disease Indications

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What are lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes are bean-shaped organs that filter the substance that travel through the lymphatic fluid. These are the small bean-shaped structure that contains lymphocytes. These lymphocytes help fight the foreign particles that invade the body.

The body contains lymph nodes that circulate throughout the body and are connected to one another. There are clusters of lymph nodes found in the underarm (axilla), neck, chest, groin and abdomen.

The lymph nodes are commonly found between the lungs and stomach. The brain and spine do not contain any lymph nodes.

How do lymph nodes work?

The lymph node forms clusters throughout the body, and the main function is to filter out the harmful substances that enters the body.

The lymph or the lymphatic fluid carries the waste material. The lymph will then pass through the lymphatic system and then lymph nodes, where the harmful substances are filtered out.

Lymph contains lymphocytes that destroy the pathogens that invade the human body. When the lymph nodes detect a damaged cell or a pathogen, they destroy the cells and convert them to waste products. The waste product will be eliminated through urine or faeces.

Swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph nodes can indicate an infection.

Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes

The common symptoms of swollen lymph nodes include

Causes of swollen lymph nodes

The most common causes of swollen lymph nodes include the common cold, measles, wounds and ear infections. Other causes of swollen lymph nodes are discussed below.

Lymphadenitis

Lymphadenitis is an enlargement of the lymph nodes due to an infection caused by bacteria, fungi and the virus. This can lead to pain when as multiple clusters of nodes occurs.

Lymphadenitis affects a few nerves, and this type of swelling is usually localised and can occur anywhere in the body. Common symptoms include

  • Soft or matted nodes
  • Sore and swollen nodes
  • Abscess around the nodes
  • Skin streaking around the nodes
  • Fluid seeping from the skin

Lymphadenitis can be treated with the help of

  • Pain relief medication
  • Antibiotics
  • Anti-Inflammatories
  • Surgery

Viral or bacterial throat infections

Viral or bacterial throat infections can cause swollen lymph nodes in the neck. For example, strep throat can cause swollen lymph in the neck region.

The common cold is caused due to a viral infection. The symptoms include a runny nose and pink eyes. In most cases, the infection resolves on its own. However, over-the-counter medication can also help with swelling and relieve pain.

Strep throat is common and is caused due to a group of bacteria called streptococcus. People get infected when they come in contact with droplets that contain strep bacteria. Strep throat can be treated with antibiotics.

Impetigo is an infection that occurs due to a bacteria called streptococcus. This causes inflammation in the groin and armpits.

A person can get infected with impetigo when the bacteria enter through a break in the skin. The infection can get transferred when people share a razor, towel, and yoga mat.

Some of the common symptoms of impetigo include

  • Blisters
  • Painful sores
  • Itchy sores
  • Sores around the nose or mouth
  • Change in skin
  • Swollen nodes

The treatment for impetigo includes antibiotics.

Ringworm

Ringworm infection is also called a jock itch. It is a fungal infection that occurs in the body and usually develops around the groin. When a person is affected with ringworm infection, it leads to swelling in the lymph nodes.

The infection usually starts as a fungal lesion and transmits when an infected person shares towels and razors. The infection thrives in moist areas like the groin. So, it is important to keep the areas of the body that are warm. Wash with soap and wipe with a clean towel to avoid such infections.

Symptoms of ringworm infection include

  • Stinging
  • Flaky skin
  • Itchiness
  • Patchy rash with a ring-like appearance

The ringworm can be treated with antifungal ointment. Ringworm can be prevented by avoiding sharing clothes, towels and razors. After bathing make sure you wipe completely with a dry towel.

Lymph node cancer

Lymph node cancer affects the lymphatic system. The two common types of lymphoma include Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Hodgkin lymphoma spreads from one cluster of lymph nodes to the other, whereas non-Hodgkin lymphoma spreads throughout the lymphatic system.

The symptoms of lymph node cancer include

  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

These symptoms can resemble the symptoms of viral infection, which make the diagnosis of lymphoma hard. If a person is affected with lymph node cancer, the symptoms tend to persist for a longer period.  

Diagnosis of swollen lymph nodes

The diagnosis of swollen lymph node can be carried out with the following tests.

Blood test

A blood test can help confirm or exclude any underlying health condition. The complete blood count will help determine the overall health of a person. However, the test is not conclusive.

A blood test will also help determine if there is any other health condition that causes the swelling of lymph node.

Imaging studies

Chest X-ray or an MRI scan will help determine the source and cause of the infection. In case of cancers or tumours, computerised tomography (CT scan) will help with the diagnosis.

Lymph node biopsy

A sample of lymph nodes will be removed by a healthcare professional. The collected sample will be examined, and further diagnosis or treatment will be decided based on the diagnosis.

Additionally, a doctor will also look at the below-mentioned list.

  • Medical history
  • Family history
  • Recent travel
  • Lifestyle
  • Medications used
  • Exposure to toxins
  • Allergic reaction
  • Underlying health conditions
  • Other symptoms

Treatment of swollen lymph nodes

Swollen lymph node caused by a viral or bacterial infection usually resolves on their own. However, there is certain over-the-counter medication available to treat such an infection. Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to ease the symptoms and reduce the swelling of lymph nodes. The treatment for the swollen lymph nodes will depend on the cause.

Immune disorders

Autoimmune diseases can cause swollen lymph nodes. People affected with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis can have their lymph nodes swollen. In such cases, people will require proper medication and antihistamines to treat their swollen lymph nodes.

Cancer

Swollen lymph nodes caused due to cancer will require treatment. The treatment will depend on the type of cancer. The common treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery.

When to consult a doctor?

Swollen lymph nodes can indicate that the body is fighting an infection. In most cases, viral or bacterial infections will resolve on their own. However, if the symptoms persist for more than a week, consult your doctor.

  • Swelling that last for more than two weeks.
  • Symptoms like high fever, pain and difficulty breathing.
  • Night sweats and persistent fever.
  • Change in size of the lymph node
  • Swelling of the lymph node in more than one area.

Conclusion

Swollen lymph nodes are common, and the swelling will be temporary. In most cases, the swelling will be caused due to an infection. The symptoms will settle after a few days, and if they do not settle, consult your doctor.

In severe cases, a swollen lymph node can indicate cancer or an autoimmune disease. In such cases, a course of treatment will be required.

FAQs

What causes lymph nodes to swell?

Lymph nodes swell due to an infection caused by a virus or bacteria. In some cases, cancer can lead to swollen lymph nodes.

What do swollen lymph nodes feel like?

Swollen lymph nodes will be soft to touch. They will be small and round with bumps the size of a pea or a grape. They will be tender to touch and can be painful. A rapid change in the size of the lymph node can indicate cancer. In such cases, consult your doctor.

Can lymph nodes be removed?

Lymph nodes encompass white blood cells. These white blood cells fight infections and protect the body against invasion. Lymph nodes are essential for a person’s well-being. However, removing a part or a few lymph nodes is considered safe.


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The Information including but not limited to text, graphics, images and other material contained on this blog are intended for education and awareness only. No material on this blog is intended to be a substitute for professional medical help including diagnosis or treatment. It is always advisable to consult medical professional before relying on the content. Neither the Author nor Star Health and Allied Insurance Co. Ltd accepts any responsibility for any potential risk to any visitor/reader.

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