Swollen Glands in the Neck: How to Know if You Have Them, and What Might Be the Cause

Plus, when you should consult a doctor.

As soon as the calendar hits December each year, any sneeze or sniffle probably puts you on edge—that's because the flu, COVID-19, and even the common cold can all look similar, symptoms-wise. Another symptom common among many ailments? Swollen glands, particularly in the neck area.

Just to be clear, swollen glands aren't really glands—the term actually refers to your lymph nodes, which are part of your body's lymphatic system that helps you fight off infections and other diseases. And while swollen glands may be a symptom, they're actually a good thing—it means your body is fighting off something it doesn't like.

Here, doctors help explain what's going on in your body when the glands in your neck are swollen, what the heck swollen glands actually feel like, and what it might take to start feeling better soon.

swollen glands in neck , Female nurse examining throat of young patient in hospital
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What are these glands in the neck—and how can you tell if they're swollen?

So again, swollen glands in the neck aren't technically glands—they're the lymph nodes located there, and the medical term for swollen lymph nodes is lymphadenopathy.

Generally speaking, lymph nodes are an important part of your immune system; they help recognize and fight germs or other foreign substances. Your body's actually full of these lymph nodes—the Cleveland Clinic says there may be around 600 in a person's body, located throughout the jaw, chest, abdomen, arms, and legs. Not all of those lymph nodes can be felt, though; the US National Library of Medicine (MedlinePlus) says the most common areas for lymph nodes to be felt by fingers are the groin, armpit, and neck area.

Lymph nodes are normally pea- or bean-sized, per the Cleveland Clinic; but when they're swollen, they can enlarge and cause discomfort in the area where they're located—most commonly, the neck, Amy Zack, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health.

What causes swollen glands in the neck?

When the lymph nodes in your neck are swollen, it's a sign they've been trying to protect you, Sterling Ransone, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, tells Health. "They're catching the bad guys—our immune system is chewing them up," he explains. The swelling takes place as a result of extra blood cells coming to the site to fight infection, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are likely a sign that you have a cold, Dr. Zack says. "This is very common with upper respiratory cold viruses," she explains. "This is the immune system of the body fighting the viral infection."

In addition to upper respiratory cold viruses—which is again, the likeliest reason for swollen glands—enlarged lymph nodes in the neck could also be a sign of the following illnesses, per the Cleveland Clinic:

  • Cold and flu
  • Strep throat
  • Sinus infections
  • Skin wounds
  • Mononucleosis

In rare cases, swollen lymph nodes may be a sign of cancer—specifically lymphoma, or a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system (which is where the lymph nodes reside), the Cleveland Clinic says. Some bacterial infections, sexually transmitted infections, or autoimmune diseases may also cause swollen lymph nodes, but in these situations, you'll have swollen lymph nodes in multiple areas of your body, instead of just one localized spot like your neck.

Can you treat swollen glands in the neck—and when should you see a doctor for them?

Since swollen lymph nodes are often a sign of a cold or other virus, the answer to treating them might be as simple as resting up until your cold passes. "It is really time and the resolution of the viral illness or inciting cause of the swelling that will help the symptoms improve," Dr. Zack says.

However, you can take certain over-the-counter medications to alleviate the swelling, such as ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used to treat pain and inflammation. That said, you should check with your doctor before taking any medications—over-the-counter or not—to make sure you're on the right track and don't need further treatment.

But because swollen lymph nodes may rarely point to a more serious underlying condition, there are situation in which you should see a doctor. "When lymph nodes in the neck are enlarged for more than seven to 10 days or there are no symptoms of a cold virus or other infection such as strep throat, it is vital to talk with the doctor about why this is the case," Dr. Zack says, adding: "If one area is much larger than others and very painful, or causing any difficulty in breathing or swallowing, it would be recommended to seek medical evaluation immediately."

The Cleveland Clinic adds that the following symptoms accompanying your swollen lymph nodes are a sign you should get checked out:

  • Lymph nodes that are more than 1 inch in diameter
  • Lymph nodes that are hard, painful, or growing rapidly
  • Lymph nodes that are draining pus or other liquids
  • Systemic symptoms like weight loss, fever, night sweats, or fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes near the collarbone or lower part of the neck
  • Red or inflamed skin over the lymph nodes

In any of these situations, doctors will likely perform further testing, like blood work, imaging scans, or even a biopsy, to get to the root of the issue.

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