When are swollen lymph nodes a problem?

March 28, 2018 | by Samir Undevia, MD

You may not notice them, but you are surrounded by germs— on your cell phone, office desk, kitchen sink, remote control and even your toothbrush. Every day your body is exposed to germs, but you don’t get sick every day because your immune system is fighting to keep you healthy. 

Part of the immune system, called the lymphatic system, helps rid your body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. The lymphatic system routes lymph fluid through hundreds of lymph nodes located through the body, which act as “filtering stations” to help fight bacteria and viruses. 

Normal lymph nodes can be tiny and hard to find, but when they are infected or cancerous, the nodes can become larger. Sometimes, nodes near your body’s surface get big enough to feel with your fingers. Other times, they can’t be seen. Lymph nodes commonly swell in the neck, groin and underarms. 

Usually, swollen lymph nodes means your body is fighting an infection. For instance, swollen lymph nodes near your ear, along with ear pain and fever, may mean you have an ear infection or cold. 

But diseases like cancer can also occur in your lymph nodes, by starting there or spreading there from somewhere else. Cancer that starts in the lymph nodes is called lymphoma. There are many types of lymphoma, including Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

What are the warning signs? Lymphoma can cause different signs and symptoms in your body, depending on the type of lymphoma and where it is located:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Unexplained fever
  • Night sweats, chills
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Feeling full after only a small amount of food
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Itchy skin

Researchers have found several risk factors that affect a person’s chance of getting lymphoma, including getting older, being exposed to certain chemicals or drugs, or having a weakened immune system.

Most people with lymphoma have risk factors that can’t be changed (like your age or gender), so there’s no way to protect against lymphomas. Still, there are certain things you can do to lower your risk for lymphoma, such as doing what you can to maintain a healthy immune system.

You can help your body stay healthy by:

  • Visit your doctor for regular check-ups
  • Maintain good hygiene (wash hands, etc.)
  • Keep up with vaccinations 
  • Store and prepare food safely
  • Drink clean water
  • Avoid unprotected sex and STDs
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid a diet high in saturated fats and red meats
  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t use intravenous drugs
  • Pay attention to new or persistent symptoms or changes in your body

There are many things about cancer that are out of our control, but you have the power to reduce your risk of getting cancer by living healthier.

Remember, take care of your body because your body is taking care of you.

Learn more about cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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