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Mayo Clinic: “Swollen lymph nodes.”
When Do Swollen Lymph Nodes Mean Cancer?
When you have swollen lymph nodes, your first thought shouldn’t be, “I have cancer.” They’re much more likely to be caused by infections or a disease that affects your immune system, and they will often clear up as your body heals.
But sometimes, cancer cells will travel through your bloodstream and end up in your lymph nodes, or even start there.
Your doctor can help you figure out what’s causing the changes in your body.
Why Lymph Nodes Swell
There are more than 600 small, kidney bean-shaped lymph nodes in clusters throughout your body — under your neck, in your armpits and groin, and in the middle of your chest and belly. These store immune cells and act as filters to remove germs, dead and damaged cells, and other waste from your body.
Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that they’re working hard. More immune cells may be going there, and more waste could be building up. Swelling usually signals an infection of some kind, but it could also be from a condition like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, or rarely, cancer.
Often, swollen lymph nodes will be close to where the problem is. When you have strep throat, lymph nodes in your neck may swell. Shingles will cause swollen lymph nodes in the area where the rash breaks out.Women who have breast cancer may get swollen lymph nodes in their armpit.
When several areas of lymph nodes are swollen, that suggests the problem is throughout your body. It could be something like chickenpox, HIV, or a cancer such as leukemia or lymphoma.
When to See a Doctor
You’ll often have a good idea why a lymph node is swollen — you’ve got a cold, your tooth is infected, or you have a cut that isn’t healing well. If you can’t come up with an explanation, it may be time to get checked out.
Lymph nodes that are around 1/2 inch or bigger aren’t normal. They shouldn’t feel hard or rubbery, and you should be able to move them. The skin over them should not be red, irritated, or warm. And the swelling should go away within a couple of weeks. You should see your doctor if your lymph nodes appear abnormal.”
Other symptoms are also a reason to make an appointment:
- Trouble breathing or swallowing
- Night sweats
- Fever that doesn’t break
- Losing weight without trying to
Getting a Diagnosis
Your doctor will probably try to rule out reasons other than cancer first. They’ll do a physical exam and ask about things that have happened, like if you’ve:
- Been scratched by a cat
- Been bitten by a tick
- Eaten undercooked meat
- Had risky sex or injected street drugs
- Traveled to certain places or areas
They’ll want to know what medications you’re taking and other symptoms you have.
Swollen nodes that are close to your collarbone or the lower part of your neck when you’re over 40 are more likely to be cancer. On the right side, related to the lungs and esophagus; on the left, organs in your belly. Swollen lymph nodes in your armpit when you don’t have a rash or sores on your arm can also be suspect.
If your doctor thinks your swollen lymph nodes could be cancer, tests and imaging can confirm the diagnosis or point to something else. Based on where the cancer might be, you could get a chest X-ray, an ultrasound, a CT scan, or an MRI. A scan called FDG-PET, which stands for fluorodeoxyglucose with positron emission tomography, can help find lymphoma and other cancers. And you’ll probably get a biopsy. They’ll take either a sample of cells from a node, typically using a needle, or remove a whole node. The sample gets sent to a lab so a specialist can check it with a microscope for cancer.
Otherwise, you’ll usually start with a complete blood count (CBC) to get a picture of your general health as well as more detailed information about your white blood cells, which fight infection. Depending on your other symptoms and your history, your doctor may want additional blood tests or x-rays, too.
If these tests don’t show another cause and the swollen nodes don’t go away in 3-4 weeks, your doctor will probably do a biopsy. Since the swelling will often go away or another cause will be found while you’re waiting to do a biopsy, the delay prevents people from getting procedures they don’t need. And even if it is cancer, you should still be able to treat it effectively.
When you have swollen lymph nodes throughout your body, your doctor will ask for a CBC, a chest X-ray, and an HIV test. If these are normal, you might get other tests, perhaps for tuberculosis or syphilis, an antinuclear antibody test (which checks your immune system), or a heterophile test (for the Epstein-Barr virus). The next step is a biopsy of the most abnormal node.
What Does Cancer in a Lymph Node Mean?
Cancer in your lymph nodes may point to lymphoma or another blood cancer, or may be a cancer that has spread from another site.
Based on the source of the cancer cells and how far away that is from the swollen nodes, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan. It could include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, or a combination of treatments.
Insight, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “If My Lymph Nodes Are Swollen, Do I Have Cancer?”
Cleveland Clinic: “Swollen Lymph Nodes.”
Mayo Clinic: “Swollen lymph nodes.”
JAMA Oncology: “Lymph Nodes and Lymphadenopathy in Cancer.”
American Cancer Society: “Lymph Nodes and Cancer.”
UpToDate: “Evaluation of peripheral lymphadenopathy in adults.”
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: “Imaging Tests,” “Blood Tests.”
What Do Swollen Lymph Nodes in the Armpit Look Like?
Lymph nodes are critical parts of the immune system. They filter foreign substances from the body and store white blood cells, called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes fight disease and infections.
You have hundreds of small bean-shaped lymph nodes throughout the body, including in your:
Swollen lymph nodes, also known as lymphadenitis, in the armpit indicate that your body is responding to an infection, injury, or a disease, like cancer. It’s important to keep in mind that in most cases, a swollen lymph node in the armpit isn’t typically a sign of cancer.
It’s not a symptom to dismiss, either, as it may be a sign of a condition that requires medical attention.
A lymph node in the armpit that’s only slightly enlarged may be difficult to see, but you may be able to feel it with your fingers. A serious infection or other condition may cause one or more nodes to swell enough that you can see a lump under your skin.
Keep in mind that the armpit contains many nodes, so swelling could occur in the front, center, or back of the armpit, as well as along part of the upper arm near the armpit.
In addition to being swollen, an affected lymph node may also be sore or tender to the touch.
To check for a swollen lymph node in the armpit, lift your arm slightly and gently place your fingers into your armpit. Press your fingers against the center of the armpit and then around the front and back of the armpit along the chest wall. Do the same on the other side.
Lymph nodes exist in pairs on each side of the body, and typically only one node in a pair will be swollen. By comparing both sides, it may be a little easier to tell if one is enlarged.
If lymph nodes are swollen in more than one part of the body, the condition is known as generalized lymphadenopathy, which suggests a systemic illness. Localized lymphadenopathy refers to swollen lymph node(s) in one location.
The location of swollen lymph nodes usually suggests the cause of the problem. A swollen lymph node in the neck, for example, is often a sign of an upper respiratory infection.
When lymph nodes in the armpit become swollen, your body may be fighting a viral infection, or any of several other conditions. The potential causes of a swollen lymph node in the armpit can include:
Common viruses can trigger swelling in one or more lymph nodes in the armpit. They can include:
More serious viral infections that may cause lymph node enlargement include herpes, rubella, and HIV.
These viruses may also cause lymph nodes in the neck to become enlarged, too. In many cases, rest, fluids, and time are all that you can do while your immune system fights off the virus. For certain viral infections, like HIV, antiviral medications may be necessary.
Some common bacterial infections on the arm or surrounding chest wall, including staphylococcus and streptococcus, can lead to an enlarged lymph node in the armpit and elsewhere in the body. Antibiotics and rest are usually enough to overcome a bacterial infection.
Immune system disorder
Flare-ups of autoimmune disorders, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause temporary enlargement of the lymph nodes in an armpit. Treatments vary, depending on the cause, but anti-inflammatory medications, pain relievers, and in serious cases, immunosuppressant drugs may be necessary.
Certain types of cancer directly involve the lymphatic system. Lymphoma actually originates in the lymph glands. Leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells, can cause inflammation and swelling of the lymph nodes.
Cancers that form in other organs or tissue may spread to the lymphatic system. Breast cancer, for example, can cause swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpit.
An enlarged lymph node near a cancerous tumor is often suspected of also being cancerous. Cancer treatments vary and may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, and other approaches.
In rare cases, certain medications can cause lymph nodes to swell. Among them are:
- ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, and vasodilators to treat high blood pressure
- anticonvulsant drugs, including phenytoin and primidone
- anti-malarial drugs, including quinidine
- uric acid reducers, like allopurinol
Switching medications or adjusting doses may be enough to reduce side effects like lymph node enlargement.
As your body starts to successfully fight off the infection, the swelling in your lymph nodes should start to diminish.
With a typical bacterial infection, for example, a course of antibiotics should start to relieve lymph node swelling and other symptoms within a few days. A stubborn viral infection could take longer.
If your other symptoms are subsiding, but your lymph nodes remain swollen, tell a health professional. You may need additional treatment or a follow-up exam to see if there are other reasons your lymph nodes are still enlarged.
Because swollen lymph nodes are more often signs of an infection, rather than cancer, you may be inclined to dismiss swelling as a temporary symptom that’ll subside as you get over your infection. In many cases, that’s exactly what will happen.
If you’re unsure whether to seek a medical evaluation for swollen lymph nodes, these signs may be reasons to see a medical professional:
- One or more lymph nodes are swollen for no obvious reason.
- The swelling has lasted or gotten worse over a period of 2 or more weeks.
- The affected node feels hard and immovable when you press on it.
- The swollen lymph nodes aren’t painful.
- You have swollen lymph nodes in separate areas, like the armpit and groin.
- You have other symptoms, like:
- redness or fluid oozing around the node
- night sweats
- unexplained weight loss
- pain elsewhere in your body
Swollen lymph nodes typically get better once your illness has been treated or goes away on its own. To support your immune system as it responds to the infection or illness, you can rest and drink plenty of fluids. If you are prescribed medication, be sure to take it according to the prescribing doctor’s instructions.
If you feel discomfort or pain due to your swollen lymph node, you can try applying a warm compress to ease discomfort. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), may also help reduce pain.
If your pain gets worse or does not resolve, you may need to consult a doctor for additional treatment or testing.
Most of the time, a swollen lymph node means your body’s immune system is doing its job in responding to an infection or other health problem. That also means you’re dealing with an illness or injury that may require treatment.
If you’re battling a cold, for instance, and you notice slight swelling of a lymph node in your armpit, pay attention to it for a few days and see if the swelling goes down when you start feeling better.
Unexplained swelling or the presence of other serious symptoms should prompt a visit with a health professional for a more complete evaluation.
Last medically reviewed on March 11, 2022