How to tell a lump from a lymph node

Lymph nodes are tiny clusters of cells found in many parts of the body. They are part of the lymphatic system and help your immune system protect your body from infection.

When you get an infection, your lymph nodes sometimes swell because of the infection-fighting process. Swollen lymph nodes are often a sign of infection, but many types of diseases can cause them to swell, from the common cold to cancer.

This article discusses common causes of swollen lymph nodes. It also looked at the difference between swollen lymph nodes and other types of lumps that can appear in the neck, such as cysts, goiters, and tumors.

Identify lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are located in the neck, face, armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin.

A fluid called lymph flows through the lymphatic system. Lymph contains infection-fighting lymphocytes (white blood cells), and it also carries bacteria, viruses, and other germs away from your tissues. The lymph is then filtered through your lymph nodes.

If you have an active infection, you may feel a lump in your neck, especially on and under your chin — these are lymph nodes. When the infection goes away, they should return to their normal size.

Some common conditions that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:

  • common cold
  • Cytomegalovirus (a type of herpes virus)
  • Tooth infection
  • influenza
  • HIV
  • Mononucleosis (“Mono” for short)
  • sore throat
  • tonsillitis

Infection is by far the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes. They can also be caused by cancer, especially non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancer can also spread to the lymph nodes and cause them to become large, hard, and sometimes fixed or immobile.

Swollen lymph nodes can also be caused by immune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

You may have heard swollen lymph nodes called swollen glands. This can be confusing because a real gland is an organ that secretes something – hormones, saliva, oil, etc. – and they are not the same as lymph nodes.

How to check your lymph nodes

If you have swollen lymph nodes, you can usually feel them by gently pressing and wrapping your three middle fingers:

  • Behind the ear and below the jawline
  • on both sides of the back of your neck
  • From the middle of the armpit to the side of the breast
  • along the crease of the thigh and pelvis

Identify lumps and tumors

Abnormal masses and tumors are often mistaken for lymph nodes because of their location. Doctors can sometimes distinguish them by their firmness, texture, shape, and whether they move or appear stationary when touched.

The vast majority of lumps are benign (noncancerous), but sometimes they can be malignant (cancerous).

nodule

A nodule is a broad term that refers to a variety of lumps, both cancerous and noncancerous. Often, healthcare providers will refer to a lump as a nodule until they know exactly what the lump is.

Nodules can form anywhere on the body, including the thyroid and vocal cords. Whether a nodule should be treated depends on whether it causes symptoms, whether or how fast it grows, and where it is on the body.

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cyst

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs of tissue that appear as lumps. They are not firm and usually feel soft. Cysts can occur in almost every part of the body. Depending on their size and location, they may require surgical drainage.

Many cysts go away on their own. Some cancers may be cystic.

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lipoma

A lipoma is a benign mass filled with fat. They are not cancerous, but sometimes must be surgically removed depending on their size and location. People who have had one lipoma in the past or have a family history of lipoma are more likely to have another lipoma.

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Lipomas: An Overview and More

goiter or colloid nodular goiter

A nodular goiter is a lump on the thyroid gland. They appear on the front of the neck, and they can be on one side. Because the thyroid moves up and down when swallowing, so do goiters and lumps on the thyroid.

A goiter usually indicates a problem with the thyroid gland, but it can also occur when the thyroid gland is functioning normally. Some goiters are caused by iodine deficiency. This used to be common in the US, but now that table salt is fortified with iodine, it’s not that common anymore.

A goiter can be treated with medication. For example, hypothyroidism (deficiency of thyroid hormones) can be treated with Synthroid (Levothyroxine) and hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone) can be treated with radioactive iodine. In some cases, they may have to be surgically removed.

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boiled

A boil is a skin infection that may appear as a lump. Most of the time, they are near the surface of the skin, from which pus may drain. Sometimes boils can be deep and/or sizable lumps. They can occur anywhere on the body.

Boils are treated with drainage. Sometimes, antibiotics are also needed—topical (on the skin) or taken by mouth in pill form. In extreme cases, intravenous (IV) antibiotics may be given.

Sometimes boils must be drained by a surgeon. This is called I&D (Incision and Drainage).

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Skin boils: an overview and more

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Unusual lumps in the neck are sometimes benign, such as cysts, lipomas, goiters, or boils. Your healthcare provider may refer to the lump as a nodule until they know exactly what it is. If it’s a cyst, it may go away on its own. Some lumps, such as boils and lipomas, may need to be drained or removed by a surgeon.

malignant tumor

A cancerous mass is called a tumor. While some sources say the definition of a tumor is any abnormal growth of tissue, the term is generally not used to define a benign growth.

Cancer cells are rapidly growing mutant cells that are difficult to stop. There are thousands of ways to classify tumor types.

Cancer has many symptoms, and a visible lump may be one of them.

Noticing any lumps on the body can be scary, although there’s a good chance that the lump isn’t cancerous. If you notice a lump, be sure to have it checked by your doctor.

Cancerous lumps are most commonly found in the breast, testicles, or lymph nodes. According to the American Cancer Society, lumps that are fluid-filled and roll easily in your fingers are less likely to become cancerous than lumps that are firm, irregular, rooted, and painless.

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diagnosis

If your lymph nodes are swollen from an infection, you may have other symptoms of infection. For example, you may also have a fever or a sore throat if they are swollen from mono.

Antibiotics are needed if the infection is bacterial, such as strep throat. If the infection is viral, such as the flu, it takes time for your immune system to fight the infection and make the lymph nodes smaller.

For other lumps, diagnostic tests may be necessary. Ultrasound, X-ray, CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to visualize whether the mass is solid or fluid-filled. It also measures the size of the lump and sometimes shows whether the lump is affecting other nearby organs and tissues.

If the lump isn’t caused by an infection or is fluid-filled, your doctor may perform a biopsy. Fluid-filled lumps are sometimes biopsied because they can also be cancerous (such as cystic thyroid cancer). A biopsy involves removing a small amount of tissue from the mass and analyzing it in a laboratory. This will reveal exactly what the lump is.

Sometimes a needle can be used to remove tissue. Other times, samples must be collected surgically. Your doctor will determine if and when you need a biopsy and the best way to get tissue.

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Although this is rare, an abnormal lump in the neck can sometimes be a cancerous tumor or a lymph node swollen from cancer. Your doctor will consider all of your symptoms when making a diagnosis. If the lump isn’t caused by an infection, they may do other tests to make a diagnosis, such as an MRI or biopsy.

Diagnosis of benign and malignant tumors

generalize

Lymph nodes are often swollen when your body is fighting an infection, such as flu, mono, or strep throat. The swollen lymph nodes should return to normal as the infection subsides.

Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are sometimes confused with other lumps and nodules, including cysts, boils, lipomas, and goiters. These are not cancerous, but may need to be surgically drained or removed by a doctor.

Because a lump in the neck can also be a sign of cancer, it’s important to check the shape, size, and feel of any new lump on your body, and let your doctor know if it gets bigger or doesn’t change in a week.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does swollen lymph nodes mean?

    Lymph nodes filter a fluid called lymph, which travels through the body’s lymphatic system. When you have an infection, the lymph nodes may become swollen, and they are sometimes called swollen glands.

  • What causes swollen lymph nodes?

    Swollen lymph nodes are caused by infection or disease. Swollen glands often occur with the common cold, flu, mononucleosis, strep throat, or dental infections. More serious diseases that can cause swollen lymph nodes include HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain types of cancer.

  • What does swollen glands feel like?

    The term swollen gland usually refers to swollen lymph nodes. Swollen lymph nodes feel like a small, soft bump in the groin, armpit, neck, under the chin and chin, behind the ear, or under the skin on the back of the head. The swollen glands range in size from peas to grapes. They often feel soft to the touch and may feel uncomfortable.

  • How to treat swollen glands?

    Treatment depends on what’s causing them to swell. If it’s a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. To relieve discomfort from swollen glands, try warm compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen).

  • What is the difference between a cyst and an enlarged gland?

    Cysts and swollen glands feel similar — they’re both soft, movable lumps under the skin. However, cysts can be anywhere on the body, while swollen glands only occur where there are lymph nodes: the groin, armpits, neck, chin and under the chin, behind the ears, or in the back of the head. The glands swell suddenly with infection and then shrink back to normal within a few days.

VigorTip words

Finding a lump anywhere on your body can be worrisome, especially if it appears to appear out of nowhere. Try not to panic, and remember that the vast majority of lumps are benign, including those on the neck. That being said, it’s still important to monitor the lump over the next few days, and call your doctor if it gets bigger or doesn’t go away within a week or two.