Are Swollen Glands a Sign of COVID-19?

It's possible—but you probably won't feel them.

It's pretty common to get swollen glands when you have an infection—so it's understandable to wonder if COVID-19—a SARS-CoV-2 infection—might cause swollen glands like other infections, including colds, the flu, and even ear infections, do.

For what it's worth, swollen glands aren't on the official list of COVID-19 symptoms posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—those included, as of July 2022:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

But here's the thing: The CDC also said that the "list does not include all possible symptoms." So, if you're dealing with swollen glands, you might start to wonder if there could be a COVID-19 link. Here's what research has shown, as of July 2022.

What Exactly Are Swollen Glands?

When people talk about swollen glands, they're usually referring to their lymph nodes—the small, bean-shaped structures that are part of your body's immune system, per the National Cancer Institute (NCI). You have hundreds of lymph nodes, and they're found all over your body, including clusters that are found in your neck, armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin.

Your lymph nodes, which are connected to each other, filter out substances that travel through your lymphatic fluid, the NCI explained. They contain lymphocytes (aka white blood cells) that help your body fight off infections and diseases.

When your body is fighting off an infection, you may get swollen lymph nodes—technically called lymphadenopathy—in that part of your body, Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, told Health. "If you have a respiratory tract infection, for example, you could get some swollen glands in your head and neck," Dr. Russo said.

Can COVID-19 Cause Swollen Glands?

Here's where it gets a little tricky: As of July 2022, there was some research to suggest that COVID-19 can cause swollen lymph nodes in some patients with the virus—but not the lymph nodes in the neck, so commonly associated with other respiratory illnesses.

Two 2020 studies—both published in the journal The Lancet: Infectious Diseases—not only discovered that swollen lymph nodes were found more often in seriously ill patients, but that the main lymph nodes affected by COVID-19 were those in the mediastinum (aka, the mediastinal lymph nodes), located in the area between your lungs that includes your heart, esophagus, and trachea.

Several studies since found a similar relationship between mediastinal lymphadenopathy and COVID-19. For example, a May 2022 study published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science found that people with COVID-19 who had mediastinal lymphadenopathy experienced more severe pneumonia. The lymphadenopathy was also associated with a higher risk of admission to an intensive care unit (ICU), though it wasn't associated with more in-hospital deaths of people with COVID-19.

An article published in June 2022 in Annals of Medicine and Surgery described mediastinal lymphadenopathy as a "serious complication" in people with COVID-19. It called for large-scale research to determine the relationship between lymphadenopathy and the progression and outcomes of COVID-19 disease.

What Should You Do if You Think You Have Swollen Glands?

Enlargement of the mediastinal lymph nodes is not something you or your healthcare provider would be able to feel during a physical exam, Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., told Health. Instead, any abnormalities there are usually detected in a CT scan.

Still, it's wise to get yourself checked out if you think your lymph nodes are enlarged. "It's like many things with COVID: If someone notices swollen glands—regardless—it would be critical to have them assessed to make sure it's not of concern," Dr. Russo said.

It's also important to note that swollen glands could be caused by a number of things—all of which deserve a thorough check-up by a healthcare provider. That's not limited to cold and flu infections—lymph nodes can also swell up with mononucleosis (aka mono), sexually transmitted infections (STIs), skin infections, or rheumatoid arthritis (an inflammatory disease of the joints), per the National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus resource.

Overall, when it comes to swollen lymph nodes—especially those that have stayed around for a while—Dr. Russo said, "it needs to be assessed to see what's going on."

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