What are Lymph Nodes, and Why Are Mine Swollen?

If you’ve ever been to the doctor with cold-like symptoms, including sore throat, runny nose, congestion or body aches, chances are the doctor will take his or her gloved hands and feel around below your jawbone. If you’re wondering what they’re checking — they’re feeling for your lymph nodes.

Lymph Nodes are oval shaped organs ranging in size from extremely tiny to about the size of a bean. They’re a vital part of your lymphatic system and work in conjunction with your immune system to rid your body of infections. Whereas the kidney and liver filter toxins out of the body, lymph nodes in the lymphatic system take care of the biological threats. Whenever you have an infection, the lymphatic system transfers invading bodies to the different lymph nodes via a white fluid called lymph. There, specialized white blood cells called lymphocytes destroy the waste materials and invading infections.

When these infections are being fought off, the lymph nodes may swell up. Most cannot be felt, but depending on the location of the infection, doctors may try to detect swelling in the neck, armpit, groin, and above the collarbone.

For most cases, as in the doctor feeling below your jaw, swollen lymph nodes are just symptoms of a local infection, such as a cold or sore throat. Swelling in the lymph nodes is the body’s natural response to an infection. There are certain cases, however, where swollen lymph nodes can be an indication to a more serious problem.

Aside from the more common causes of swollen lymph nodes, such as viral and bacterial infections, swelling can also be caused by side effects of some medications and can be signs of more life threatening illnesses such as certain cancers, AIDS, and infectious diseases.

If more serious illnesses are suspected, your doctor may direct you to have an MRI or PET-CT Scan taken of the area in which the swollen node is located or other areas where there are lymph nodes that can’t be felt. Sometimes, a biopsy of the node and surrounding tissues may be in order. If you’re in the New Orleans or Metairie area, call 504-883-8111 or use our online form to schedule your appointment.

In most cases though, swollen lymph nodes can be attributed to the common cold, flu, or other common infections. If your lymph nodes are swollen for more than a month without any other symptoms, however, a more detailed look into them may be needed.