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Swollen Lymph Nodes

Lymphatic System
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The lymphatic system is an important part of the body's immune system. It is made up of a network of lymph nodes and vessels which make and move substances that fight infection by destroying microorganisms in the body. Tonsils and adenoids are a type of lymph nodes.

What are lymph nodes?

There are over 500 lymph nodes, or "glands", in the body. Most lymph nodes are found in groups near the armpit, groin, and neck. They are also found in the chest and abdominal cavities away from the surface of the skin. In general, lymph nodes are the size of a pea.

Lymph nodes are an important part of the immune system. They help stop the spread of infection. They act like tiny filters, catching viruses and bacteria for white blood cells to destroy. They also produce substances that help kill infection-causing germs.

Swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy) are common in children. Serious disease causing the swelling is not common.

Causes

Viral infection

Your child’s lymph nodes will swell when they are fighting an infection. If the lymph nodes are infected by a virus, such as a cold, they can grow to about one inch across. This slight enlargement, along with mild tenderness, means the lymph nodes are working to control the infection.

Bacterial infection

If your child is infected by a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, her lymph nodes may grow to more than one inch across. They will be very tender and sore to touch.

If your child’s lymph nodes grow to more than two inches across and the surrounding skin turns red, this means the lymph nodes are not controlling the infection very well. The lymph nodes may be becoming infected themselves. This condition is known as lymphadenitis.

Other signs and symptoms:

  • cuts, burns, rashes, and insect bites may cause lymph nodes to get larger

  • swollen lymph nodes in the groin could mean your child has an injury near her lower abdomen or legs

  • swollen lymph nodes in the armpit could mean your child has an injury near her arms or upper chest

  • swollen lymph nodes on the back of the neck could mean your child has an injury on her scalp

  • swollen lymph nodes on the front of the neck could mean your child has a cold or throat infection

Treatment

Swelling

Treatment for swollen lymph nodes depends on the cause. Swollen lymph nodes caused by a viral infection will shrink to normal size on their own in about two to four weeks. If your child has a bacterial infection, her doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the underlying cause of the swelling.

Pain

For pain or fever over 39°C (102°F), give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen as directed on the bottle or by your child’s doctor.

Avoid squeezing swollen lymph nodes. This may irritate them further and prevent them from shrinking back to normal size. In some cases, it can take up to one month or more for the swelling to disappear completely.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your child’s doctor if:

  • your child develops a sore throat

  • the lymph nodes continue to grow over many weeks

  • your child develops unusual bruising

  • your child has a fever

  • your child is bleeding excessively from the nose or mouth

  • your child is losing weight

Go to the nearest Emergency Department or call 911 if:

  • the skin around the swollen node is red and painful

  • the node swells to two or more inches across

Key points

  • Lymph nodes swell when they are fighting an infection.

  • Treatment for swollen lymph nodes depends on the cause.

  • Swelling due to viral infections, like the common cold, will disappear on its own.

  • Swelling due to bacterial infections, like strep throat, will disappear with antibiotics.

  • Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen to treat pain or fever over 39°C (102°F).

  • Make an appointment with your child’s doctor if she develops unusual bruising or is losing weight.

Bruce Minnes, MD, FRCPC

1/18/2011




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