What Causes Inflamed Lymph Nodes?

What Causes Inflamed Lymph Nodes?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

First of all, it is important to know that many cases of inflamed lymph nodes are not serious, especially if they are due to infections. However, it is always advisable to control the state of your lymph nodes in order to prevent other diseases. If they do become inflamed, it is best to see a doctor.

These small lumps that sometimes appear as small swellings on your neck, like when you have a cold for example, are called lymph nodes. They are essential for your body and act as liquid filters for the lymph tissue. They are shaped like almonds, barely more than a half an inch, and form around your neck, armpits, groin, thorax, and abdomen.

If you notice that they are inflamed, the first thing you should do is keep calm and remember that over half of the time it is due to normal processes. However, it is always best to get a diagnosis from a doctor. We’ll now explain the function of the lymph nodes and the causes of inflammation.

What do lymph nodes do?

Doctor checking woman's lymph nodes

This is basically what lymph nodes do:

  • In the first place, they filter the lymph nodes from foreign substances like bacteria and cancerous cells, and destroy them.
  • Additionally they produce white blood cells, like lymphocytes and plasma, which are responsible for destroying foreign substances
  • They have an important part to play in defending your immune system.

Lymph nodes have different shapes and sizes. For example, underneath the jaw they are flat and around 0.4 inches wide and in the shape of a bean. The ones in the nape are around 0.2 inches, and are shaped like a lentil. And the lymph nodes in the groin are long, and a little over 0.6 inches wide.

Why do I get inflamed lymph nodes?

There are many reasons for inflamed lymph nodes. Since their main function is to protect your immune system, they are very sensitive to any changes. It could be due to insignificant causes or have more serious origins, like cancer, for example. But let’s look at the possible causes of inflammation in detail:

  • Normal infections due to colds, flus, or tonsillitis
  • Specific bacterial infections: syphilis, tuberculosis, salmonella food poisoning
  • Lupus infections
  • Viral infections like rubeola, measles
  • Infections from other bacteria which causes malaria and leishmaniasis
  • Rheumatic diseases
  • Inflammation of lymph nodes due to medications: perchlorate, cotrimoxazole, hydantoin
  • Stress, sleeping poorly, bad diet, lack of nutrients
  • Sometimes lymph nodes can get inflamed due to lymphoma. These are tumorous diseases that doctors treat in the same way as benign neoplasms (non-cancerous). However, you have to keep in mind that there is a risk of malignant lymphoma, and your doctor will carefully monitor any changes or symptoms.

Initial evaluations of your lymph nodes

Your doctor will obviously carry out a diagnosis and tell you the steps to take. Nevertheless, you should always ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you had a cold or flu?
  • Where is the inflamed lymph node? In the neck, armpit, collarbone?
  • When did you begin to notice it? Was it sudden or did it grow little by little?
  • Is it painful?
  • Have you had previous illnesses?
  • Do you take any medications?
  • Have you recently gone on vacation?
  • Have you lost weight?

All of this will allow you to detect which part of your immune system hasn’t recovered yet, as most of the time inflammation in lymph nodes comes from previous illnesses. Sometimes it is also because of medication or bacteria. With this information and the proper tests, your doctor will be able to tell you the cause of the swelling.

Things to keep in mind

In most cases of inflamed lymph nodes, the problem occurs in the neck and the origin is almost always due to neck or mouth infections. These are not very serious. However, you should make sure that the lump doesn’t grow excessively. If it approaches 2 inches in diameter, you will have to do a biopsy.

Remember that although the nodes in your neck are normally harmless, the ones located in the collarbone area, no matter their size, are always considered to be dangerous. You will need to treat these urgently, because they tend to lead to cancerous growths.

How to care for and prevent lymph node problems

Water melon is good for inflammation

One of the keys for preventing inflamed lymph nodes as much as possible is undoubtedly strengthening your immune system. That is why it is important to eat the following foods daily:

Vitamin C

This is essential for your immune system. It fights infection and viruses, and protects your cells. You can find it in citrus fruits, kiwis, strawberries, mangos, tomatoes, etc.

Vitamin E

It increases white cell production, which helps to protect you from cancer and bacteria. It is found in most fruits, vegetables, and nuts, like walnuts, pistachios, almonds, etc.

Foods Rich in Betacarotene

These have antioxidants, fight free radicals, and strengthen your defenses. It is essential to eat foods like carrots, corn, watermelon, cabbage, beets, pumpkin, asparagus, apricots, etc.

Selenium and Zinc

These help you produce more cells, which, in turn, strengthen your immune system. What foods contain selenium and zinc? Whole grains, Brazil nuts, most other nuts, seafood, soybeans, among others.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.