Swollen glands

Swollen glands or lymph nodes are often caused by an infection. Lymph glands are small lumps of tissue that contain white blood cells, which fight off infection and are an essential part of the immune system. 

  • They are found under the neck, armpits and groin
  • The common cold and glandular fever are common causes
  • Often no treatment is needed, but it may be required if it’s caused by a serious condition

If you are concerned about swollen glands, you can speak to one of our GMC-registered clinicians via our online video consultation service. They can provide advice about symptoms and treatment and issue prescriptions and referrals to specialists where suitable. Our clinicians are available from 9.30am-4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

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Possible causes

What causes swollen glands?

There are a variety of causes for swollen glands; they are often easy to spot as they can be felt underneath the skin having become enlarged.

Infectious causes

This is the most common cause of swollen glands. It occurs because the lymph nodes are fighting whatever bacteria or virus is attacking the immune system. 

Typical infections that can lead to swollen glands include:

  • Tonsillitis and the common cold, which cause the glands in the neck to swell
  • A skin infection on the arm, which can cause swelling in the armpits 
  • Other viral infections such as the flu, glandular fever, rubella and chickenpox

Bacterial infections such as tuberculosis and lyme disease can also cause swollen glands, but they are much less common.

Non-infectious causes

Various cancers may also lead to swollen glands. This is due to the cancerous cells spreading to the lymph channels. They can then grow and multiply, leading to the characteristic swelling.

Examples of possible cancerous causes include:

  • Breast cancer spreading to the armpit
  • Throat cancer forming in the neck
  • Non-hodgkin’s lymphoma 
  • Lung cancer spreading in the chest

Swollen glands from cancer can usually be distinguished by a few factors. They develop more slowly, and will be firm and hard to the touch.

Diagnosing the cause of swollen glands

A doctor will look at your medical history, and for indications of an infection. Signs of another underlying condition may also be explored, such as weight loss, night sweats or an unexpected rash. A doctor is likely to inquire as to what medications you may be on, as sensitivity to certain drugs is a common cause of problems with the lymph nodes. They also usually ask some basic questions about how long the glands have been swollen and how quickly the swelling materialised.

A physical examination will follow the initial checks. There are several points of consideration: if the lymph nodes are larger than 2cm, then this is a good indication that there is a problem. If the lymph nodes are very hard, there’s a possibility that they could be harmful. The distribution of the lymph nodes is also important; if they’re swollen throughout the body, it can be an indication of a systemic condition.

In most cases, the history and physical examination is sufficient for a diagnosis, but if not, there are some further tests that can be conducted. If the cause is unknown, a doctor may issue a full blood count, and take some swabs from the suspected site of infection to form a culture. If a doctor suspects that the cause of the swollen glands is something severe, they can perform a biopsy of the area.

If you have swollen glands and are concerned that they may be an indication of a severe underlying condition, you can speak to one of our GMC-registered clinicians via our online video consultation service, from 9.30am to 4,30pm, five days a week.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Types of Treatment

How are swollen glands treated?

The treatment for swollen glands entirely depends on what the cause is. If the cause is a condition such as the common cold, then no treatment is necessary, whereas if the cause is a more severe condition such as cancer, treatment is extensive.

For common causes such as viral infections, the lymph nodes will go down by themselves without the need for treatment. Whilst the infection is present, it’s important to stay hydrated and relieve symptoms with paracetamol or ibuprofen. 

It’s likely that if your lymph nodes have been persistently swollen, your doctor will advise you to keep an eye on them for a few weeks to see if they remain this way. If they are swollen for up to six weeks, continue to increase in size and become widespread, it’s likely that you will be referred to a specialist.

If the cause of the swollen glands is bacterial, antimicrobial therapy is recommended. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are treatment options if the swollen lymph nodes prove to be cancerous. In rare cases where the lymph nodes swell to a large size, they may have to be drained of fluid. 

Swollen lymph nodes are mostly benign and decrease in size once an infection has passed, but they point towards a more serious condition, for which long-term treatment may be required. 

If you are worried about your swollen lymph nodes, you can speak to one of our GPhC-registered clinicians who can let you know what treatment options are available and whether you will require further investigation. They can be consulted between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to have swollen glands for?

It depends on what the cause of the swollen lymph nodes is. If they’ve been triggered by a viral infection, they increase in size rapidly over 2 or 3 days before getting smaller over a couple of weeks.

If the cause is more serious, it’s likely that the lymph nodes will swell gradually over a longer period of time. This may persist for more than 6 weeks in some cases.

Are swollen glands serious?

In the majority of cases, swollen glands are an indication of a viral infection which is self-limiting, but it is possible that they may be cancerous. In which case, extensive treatment will be needed immediately.

Can I get treatment for swollen glands?

Treatment for swollen glands depends on what the cause is; most of the time, you won’t need any particular pharmacological treatment as the glands return to a normal size after a couple of weeks.

However, if swollen glands are cancerous or bacterial, specific treatment for the condition is required. For example, chemotherapy and radiotherapy is recommended for many cancers. 

How can I prevent swollen glands?

There is not much you can do to prevent swollen glands from developing, as they are usually caused by an infection. However, there are measures you can take to alleviate symptoms.

Placing a warm washcloth over the area can help relieve swelling. It’s also advisable to rest and take paracetamol or ibuprofen where necessary.

Can I speak to a doctor about swollen glands?

Swollen glands are potentially uncomfortable, and you may want to speak to a doctor about how to manage them. One of our registered clinicians can give you advice via our online video consultation service, and provide prescriptions and referrals to specialists, where suitable. They can be contacted between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week. 

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020

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