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Swollen glands: When to worry

The term “swollen glands” usually refers to lymph node enlargement. These nodes are part of the lymphatic system that helps your body fight disease, make blood cells and remove waste products.

You can usually feel a swollen node in your neck, behind your ears, under your chin or on the back of your head. Nodes can also swell in your armpits and groin. When that happens, what does it mean?

Common causes

Swollen glands usually signify infection. The nodes rapidly enlarge in response to a germ invasion and therefore become sore. For example, nodes behind the ears or in the neck often swell with the onset of sore throat, ear infections, mononucleosis, German measles (also called rubella) or mumps.

Sometimes, canker sores, an impacted tooth, a prescription medication or a vaccination can also cause your lymph nodes to flare up. Reactions to compounds like penicillin sometimes cause serum sickness, a usually minor condition marked by hives, fever, itching and joint pain in addition to swollen glands.

Feeling better

This soreness and swelling should begin to ease up after a few days. As a rule, it takes swollen glands longer to return to normal size than to enlarge.

See your doctor if swelling doesn’t subside after two or three weeks, if glands grow larger, if they are red and tender or if they become hard and feel fixed in place. Watch for glands that swell above the collarbone or behind the ears or that accompany fever, night sweats or weight loss. Such symptoms may indicate a more serious condition.

Serious concerns

Several worrisome diseases can signal their arrival with swollen glands. Doctors say this kind of swelling can be gradual instead of sudden. Culprits include:

  • Tuberculosis, causing swollen nodes above the collarbone
  • Leukemia
  • Leukemia
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • HIV or AIDS