How Might Swollen Glands Be a Sign of COVID-19?

Though they may not be a common sign of COVID-19, it's still possible for them to happen.

You may be wondering if COVID-19—a SARS-CoV-2 infection—might cause swollen glands like other infections (e.g., colds, the flu, and even ear infections) do.

Since it's pretty common to get swollen glands when you have an infection, it's possible for them to show up with COVID-19 infections in areas such as your neck and around your lungs.

Here's what you need to know about the connections between COVID-19 and swollen glands.

Checking thyroid glands at the doctor

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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.

You have hundreds of lymph nodes. They're found all over your body, including clusters that are found in your:

  • Neck
  • Armpits
  • Chest
  • Abdomen
  • Groin

Your lymph nodes, which are connected to each other, filter out substances that travel through your lymphatic fluid. They contain lymphocytes (known as 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," said Dr. Russo.

How Have Swollen Glands Been Linked to COVID-19?

It's possible to experience swollen glands as part of COVID-19—and there has been research to back up this connection.

Swollen Lymph Nodes in the Neck

COVID-19 infections have resulted in cervical lymphadenopathy, or swollen lymph nodes in the neck, as well. In a study published in 2021, the authors mentioned that swollen neck lymph nodes were part of the atypical symptoms of COVID-19 related to the ears, nose, and throat.

Swollen Lymph Nodes Around the Lungs

There has been a lot of research about swollen lymph nodes in the mediastinum (aka, mediastinal lymph nodes). The mediastinum of your body is a space that keeps your lungs and other chest structures (e.g., heart, esophagus, windpipe) separate.

For example, two 2020 studies found that patients ended up with swollen lymph nodes in the mediastinum area. However, the authors of those studies noted that the swollen lymph nodes appeared in seriously ill patients with COVID-19.

A 2022 study found that people with COVID-19 who had swollen mediastinal lymph nodes experienced more severe pneumonia. The swollen lymph nodes in the mediastinum 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.

Another study, published in June 2022, also described mediastinal lymphadenopathy as a "serious complication" in people with COVID-19. The study also called for large-scale research to determine the relationship between mediastinal lymphadenopathy and the progression and outcomes of COVID-19 disease.

Swollen Lymph Nodes in Other Areas or Multiple Areas at Once

The studies above focused on swollen lymph nodes in the neck and surrounding the lungs. But that doesn't mean that COVID-19 can't lead to swollen glands elsewhere in the body.

There's a potential chance that a COVID-19 infection might begin with swollen lymph nodes in various places of the body at once that are not connected to one another. This is known as generalized lymphadenopathy, which can happen with inflammatory or infectious diseases.

However, there are only case studies indicating it's possible to have swollen lymph nodes appear in other or multiple places at the same time with a COVID-19 infection. More research on a larger scale is needed to find out how often these types of effects from COVID-19 may happen or have happened.

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

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).

Additionally, remember that swollen lymph nodes can also be a sign of cancer, so it is imperative to get a detailed medical evaluation done as soon as swollen lymph nodes are identified.

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."

Common Symptoms of COVID-19

For what it's worth, swollen glands aren't on the official list of COVID-19 symptoms provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The symptoms included as of October 2022 are:

  • 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." In other words, swollen glands may not be considered an official symptom of COVID-19, but they can appear when the infection does.

A Quick Review

Swollen lymph nodes can be the result of your body responding to infections. So, a person can have swollen glands (swollen lymph nodes) if they have COVID-19, based on research.

Swollen glands can be a symptom of various illnesses. If you think you have swollen glands at any time, you'll want to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

COVID-19 Disclaimer: The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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