What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes in the Neck?

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Swollen lymph nodes in the neck are often caused by viral and bacterial infections such as the common cold and strep throat, according to Healthgrades. The condition can also be a symptom of serious diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and Hodgkin lymphoma. If not associated with a cold or similar minor viral infection, those with swollen lymph nodes should consult with their doctor for diagnosis and treatment, as some causes of swollen lymph nodes can be life-threatening.

Lymph nodes are glands that store white blood cells and circulate lymph, which is a clear fluid that moves through the lymphatic system, states Healthline. If there is an infection or illness localized in a certain part of the body, such as the head or neck, the lymph nodes in that area may become inflamed and swollen. When bacteria, viruses or diseased cells pass through the lymph nodes as a response to this infection or disease, they begin to accumulate there. That is why lymph nodes sometimes swell up and become sore to the touch.

If the lymph nodes in the head and neck are swollen, it is likely in response to an upper respiratory infection such as the common cold, a sinus infection or laryngitis, states Healthline and MedicineNet. However, it could also be in response to a scratch or wound near these glands, an infection, or a tumor in the mouth, neck or head, states WebMD.

The common cold is a viral infection that is spread through air droplets released when sick people cough, sneeze or blow their nose, explains MedlinePlus. Symptoms of the virus usually affect the nose and may include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and a scratchy throat.

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that commonly causes symptoms such as sore throat, sudden fever, headache and difficulty swallowing, notes Healthline. If left untreated, strep throat can lead to serious complications including sinusitis, rheumatic fever, scarlet fever and peritonsillar abscess.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that affects the joints and causes symptoms such as pain, swelling and stiffness, according to Healthline. The condition occurs when the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, causing joint damage when the joint cartilage erodes.

Hodgkin lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the lymph tissues, notes MedlinePlus. Risk factors for the cancer include past infection of the Epstein-Barr virus and HIV. Common symptoms of the cancer include loss of appetite, fatigue and unexplained weight loss. Other symptoms, such as skin flushing and pain in the lymph nodes after alcohol consumption, can also occur.