Lymphadenopathy

Specialty of Surgery

What is adenopathy (lymphadenopathy)?

Adenopathy is a term that refers to swelling of a gland, typically the lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy). A lymph node is an oval or kidney-shaped organ that forms part of the lymphatic system - a network of nodes, organs and lymphatic vessels situated all over the body. The lymph node’s primary function is to fight infection. The lymphatic system is in fact a vital part of the immune system, helping to identify sources of infection and preventing other parts of the body becoming infected also.

What are the symptoms?

Lymph nodes are located all over the body and consequently, swelling can appear in a number of locations. Common signs of a lymphadenopathy are swelling in the neck, groin, and armpits and under the chin. The swelling can be accompanied by tenderness in the lymph nodes, fever, sore throat and runny nose.

If the swelling has been present for two to four weeks and the lymph nodes continue to get bigger, or the nodes are hard and rubbery and don’t move when pressed, it may be an indication of something more serious. Symptoms might also include night sweats.

What causes it?

Swollen lymph nodes can have multiple underlying causes. Usually, a common infection like measles, common colds, tonsillitis, ear infections, and strep throat is the root cause of lymphadenopathy. Less commonly, certain STIs, tuberculosis, infection from a cat scratch or toxoplasmosis can lead to swelling of the lymph nodes. HIV infection is also a potential underlying cause.

Aside from infections, occasionally autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus will cause swollen lymph nodes. In rare instances, swelling of the lymph nodes can indicate cancers such as leukaemia (cancer of the blood and bone marrow) or lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system.

Swelling can also result as a side effect of certain medications. Anyone concerned about the cause of lymph node swelling should see a doctor to establish the cause.

What is the treatment?

Lymph nodes are not treated directly, rather the underlying condition is treated. If the underlying cause is an infection, then the lymph nodes will normally return to normal after the infection clears up.

If swollen lymph nodes are caused by an autoimmune disorder or cancer, then the underlying conditions are targeted.

If the lymph nodes themselves are tender or painful, the symptoms are often treated with over-the-counter pain medication, plenty of rest and warm compressions to help with the swelling. 

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