What To Do About Swollen Glands in the Neck

What to do if your neck glands are swollen.

Each year, as soon as the weather becomes cold, any sneeze or sniffle probably puts you on edge—symptoms of the flu and COVID-19, or even the common cold, can all look similar. Another symptom that's common among many ailments is swollen glands, particularly in the neck area.

But swollen glands aren't actually glands. The term refers to your lymph nodes, part of your body's lymphatic system that helps fight infections and other diseases. 

And while swollen glands may be a symptom of an infection, they're a good sign. Enlarged lymph nodes indicate your body is fighting back.

Here's what you should know about what's going on in your body when the glands in your neck are swollen, how your glands might feel, and when you may need to consult a health care provider.

swollen glands in neck , Female nurse examining throat of young patient in hospital
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Your Body's Lymph Nodes

As discussed previously, the swollen glands you may feel in your neck are actually lymph nodes. The medical term for swollen lymph nodes is lymphadenopathy.

Lymph nodes are an essential part of your immune system. According to the National Library of Medicine, your body is full of those lymph nodes, which help detect and fight germs or other foreign substances.

Lymph nodes are located throughout the jaw, chest, abdomen, arms, and legs. However, you cannot feel all of those lymph nodes. Per the National Library of Medicine, common areas where you can feel your lymph nodes include:

  • Groin
  • Armpit
  • Neck (on either side of the front, sides, and back of your neck)
  • Under the jaw and chin
  • Behind the ears
  • On the back of the head

Lymph nodes are typically pea- or bean-sized and not usually palpable. However, when they enlarge they can cause discomfort in the area where they're located. Most commonly, you'll notice the lymph nodes in your neck become swollen, Amy Zack, MD, a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, told Health.

Causes of Swollen Glands in the Neck

When the lymph nodes in your neck are swollen, it's a sign that they're trying to protect you, Sterling Ransone, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Health

"They're catching the bad guys. Our immune system is chewing them up," said Dr. Ransone. The swelling results from extra white blood cells coming to the site to fight infection.

According to Dr. Zack, swollen lymph nodes in the neck are likely a sign that you have a cold. 

"This is very common with upper respiratory cold viruses," explained Dr. Zack. "This is the immune system of the body fighting the viral infection."

According to the National Library of Medicine, in addition to upper respiratory cold viruses, enlarged lymph nodes in the neck could also be a sign of the following infections:

  • An abscessed or impacted tooth
  • Ear infections
  • Swelling (inflammation) of gums (gingivitis)
  • Mononucleosis
  • Mouth sores
  • Tonsillitis
  • Tuberculosis
  • Skin infections

In rare cases, swollen lymph nodes may be a sign of cancer—precisely, lymphoma, per the National Library of Medicine. Lymphoma is a type of cancer affecting the lymphatic system, where the lymph nodes reside.

Some bacterial infections; STIs, like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); or autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, may also cause swollen lymph nodes.

In those situations, however, you'll usually have swollen lymph nodes in multiple areas of your body, instead of just one localized spot like your neck. You may also show other systemic symptoms such as weight loss, night sweats, long-lasting fever, difficulty breathing, or fatigue.

How To Treat Swollen Neck Glands

Since swollen lymph nodes are often a sign of a common cold or other infections, 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," noted Dr. Zack.

However, you can take certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications to alleviate the swelling, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs, which include ibuprofen, can treat pain and reduce inflammation, per the National Library of Medicine.

But consider consulting your healthcare provider before taking any medications—OTC or not—to ensure you're on the right track and don't need further treatment.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

Because swollen lymph nodes may rarely point to a more serious underlying condition, there may be situations in which you should see a healthcare provider.

"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 [healthcare provider] about why this is the case," said Dr. Zack. "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 National Library of Medicine advises that you contact your healthcare provider if you notice any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Your lymph nodes do not get smaller after several weeks or continue to get larger.
  • They are red and tender.
  • They feel hard, irregular, or fixed in place.
  • You have a fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss.
  • Any lymph node in a child is larger than one centimeter in diameter.

In any of those situations, your healthcare provider may perform further testing. Testing may include blood work, imaging scans, or even a biopsy to determine the issue's root.

Because lymph nodes are involved in the body's immune response, many infections, inflammatory disorders, and other conditions are potential causes of swollen lymph nodes. Your healthcare provider can help guide you to better health.

A Quick Review

If you come down with a common cold, the flu, COVID-19, or another upper respiratory infection, you may notice that the glands in your neck become swollen. 

Those glands are called lymph nodes, which swell in response to illness. Swollen lymph nodes develop in response to various common illnesses, like upper respiratory infections, STIs, and tonsilitis. 

If your swollen lymph nodes result from a common cold or any other upper respiratory infection easily managed at home, get plenty of rest, and drink fluids to help ease your symptoms. 

But if your swollen lymph nodes last several weeks, become more prominent or harden, or you develop a fever among other symptoms, you should consider consulting a healthcare provider for further evaluation.

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