We’ve all felt that first tickle of a cough and instinctively felt the sides of our neck to see if we’ve got “swollen glands” that signal of some kind of incipient infection. Those “glands” are actually lymph nodes, part of your body’s immune system. And although the ones in your neck are the ones you notice when they’re enlarged, these bean-shaped lumps of tissue are also found in the chest, groin, and armpits, to name a few other spots.
The lymph nodes function to clear old cells and infection from your body. It is an interim garbage collection station of sorts! When your lymph nodes swell, it’s typically because white bloods cells in your lymph nodes are multiplying to fight some invading foreign substance, such as a virus or bacteria. These “swollen glands” are not usually cause for concern themselves when there are other simultaneous symptoms. They’re more like alarm bells for another underlying condition.
Most swollen lymph nodes will return to normal within two or three weeks. An over-the-counter anti-inflammatory or pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetominophen, can help relieve discomfort, as can a warm compress. If, however, the lymph nodes stay swollen for more than two weeks, you experience night sweats, weight loss, or prolonged fever, or if you notice lumps in the neck that are not associated with an upper respiratory infection, you should seek medical attention. Asymptomatic swollen glands in the neck of an adult smoker should not be ignored. It can be the first sign of a cancer of the aerodigestive tract. And if a swollen lymph node is making it hard to breathe, you should seek attention immediately.