The Causes of Inflamed Lymph Nodes

The Causes of Inflamed Lymph Nodes

Last update: 05 May, 2015

You shouldn’t be worried by all instances of inflamed lymph nodes, especially if it’s due to infection. However, you should be aware of signs of illness. This article will help you know when to consult your GP.

The small lumps on your neck that sometimes appear to be a bit swollen – when you have a cold for example – are your lymph nodes. As liquid filters for the lymph tissue, it’s essential that they’re functioning properly. If not, your health may suffer. Almond-shaped and small (barely more than a centimetre in size), you’ll notice them around your neck, armpits, groin, thorax and abdomen. If they’re noticeably inflamed, remain calm. Over half of the time, this is a normal response to a minor infection or fluctuation in the body. Do err on the side of caution, though, and see your GP for a diagnosis. Read on for an explanation about the purpose these nodes serve, their functions and the common causes of inflammation.

What is the function of these nodes?

Lymph nodes

The lymph nodes play several important roles in the body. They:

  • filter foreign substances – bacteria and cancerous cells, for example – and destroy them.
  • produce white blood cells, such as lymphocytes and plasma, which are destroy foreign substances.
  • comprise the lymphatic system, which is structured like blood vessels.
  • defend your immune system.
  • vary in shape and size. Underneath the jaw, for instance, they are shaped like a flat bean and are approximately a centimetre wide. Those in the nape are about 0.5 centimetre in size and are shaped a little like a lentil. In the groin, you’ll find that these nodes are longer and just a bit larger at 1.5 centimetres.

What causes inflammation?

When it comes to the lymphatic system, there are quite a few possible causes of inflammation. As their primary function is to protect your immune system, they are highly sensitive to change. Inflamed nodes may be a response to insignificant things or their origins may be more serious – even cancer, for example, in extreme cases. In detail, here are some of the causes you may want to consider:

  • Normal infections from colds, flu or tonsillitis
  • Syphilis, tuberculosis, salmonella food poisoning and other such bacterial origins
  • Lupus infections
  • Viruses such as rubeola (measles)
  • Pathogen-induced infections such as malaria or leishmaniasis
  • Rheumatic illness or disease
  • Inflammation caused by reactions to medications – commonly: perchlorate, co-trimoxazole and hydantoin
  • Reaction to stress, insomnia, bad diet or a nutrition deficiency
  • Lymph nodes can sometimes become inflamed as a result of an issue like lymphoma (a tumour disease) that is treated as a benign (non-cancerous) neoplasms. Do bear in mind, however, that there is a risk of malignant lymphoma and a doctor should be involved to more carefully monitor any changes or symptoms.

Evaluating your lymph nodes

Lymph node inflammation

When you see your GP for a diagnosis, he or she will also advise you about treatment. Nevertheless, before you start worrying too much, you should ask yourself the following:

  • Have you recently had a cold or flu?
  • Where is the inflamed node located? Is it in the neck, armpit or clavicle?
  • When did you first notice it? Did it suddenly or gradually change in size?
  • Is there any pain associated with the area?
  • Have you had previous relevant illnesses?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Have you recently been on holiday?
  • Have you been losing weight?

The answers to these questions will help you to determine whether or not your immune system has recovered, as previous illnesses do have a major impact upon the development of inflammation in the lymphatic system. Medication and bacteria are also large contributing factors. With your own analysis and the proper tests, your GP will be able to pinpoint the cause of the swelling.

What to bear in mind

Quite commonly, lymph node inflammation manifests itself in the throat and the most likely cause is a neck or a mouth infection. These types of infections are not usually significant, but you should stay vigilant and keep an eye on the inflammation. Make sure that it doesn’t grow excessively. If it seems larger than 4cm, you will probably need a biopsy.

Although the nodes in your neck are normally harmless, it’s important to remember that the ones located in the clavicle – no matter their size – are always considered to be dangerous and you must seek treatment quickly, because they tend to indicate the presence of cancer.

Care and prevention

Watermelon with rind

Undoubtedly, a strong immune system is one of the keys for preventing inflammation in these nodes. Proper nutrition is vital and that’s why you should ensure that you’re eating the following foods every day:

Vitamin C

Essential to your immune system, vitamin C protects your cells and also fights infection and viruses. You’ll find it in citrus fruits such as kiwis and strawberries, but it’s also abundant in mangos and tomatoes.

Vitamin E

This important vitamin increases white cell production and these are the cells that protect you from cancer and bacteria. The majority of fruits and vegetables are good sources, as are nuts – especially, walnuts, pistachios and almonds.

Foods loaded with betacarotene

Betacarotene-rich foods have antioxidants, so they fight free radicals and strengthen your defenses against disease. C arrots, corn, watermelon, cabbage, beetroot, pumpkin, asparagus and apricots should be enjoyed as often as you like.

Selenium and zinc

These trace elements help you to produce new cells and this process provides energy to your immune system. Which foods are good sources? You’ll have no trouble finding delicious ways to top up. Selenium is in whole grains, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and soybeans. Zinc is abundant in pumpkin seeds, spinach, cashews and – yum! – dark chocolate.