What are swollen lymph nodes?

There are lymph nodes throughout your body. They’re part of your immune system and work like a filter for viruses and bacteria.

Lymph nodes become swollen for many reasons. It’s usually nothing to worry about.

Swollen lymph nodes happen most often when your body is busy fighting a viral or bacterial infection like a sore throat or glandular fever.

Swollen lymph nodes can also happen if a part of your body is inflamed – for example, because of an abrasion, burn or insect bite.

Some young children with eczema have swollen lymph nodes all the time. This is because germs more easily pass through their inflamed skin into their body and the lymph nodes help get rid of them.

Cancer is a rare cause of swollen lymph nodes in children.

Lymph nodes are also known as lymph glands.

Children’s lymph nodes are usually bigger than those of adults, so it’s easier to feel them. You can sometimes feel the ones on either side of the neck, the armpits and at the front of the groin where your child’s leg bends, even when your child is well. If your child is thin, you might even be able to see them.

Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes

Lymph nodes might swell up all over your child’s body or just in the area near the infection or inflammation.

For example, if your child has tonsillitis, you might notice swollen and tender lumps in her neck. Or if she has a skin infection on her finger there might be swollen and tender lumps under that arm.

Sometimes lymph nodes can swell up to several centimetres in size.

Lymph nodes can stay swollen for weeks after the infection has cleared up.

Does your child need to see a doctor about swollen lymph nodes?

You should take your child to the GP if:

  • your child has had swollen lymph nodes for a few days, and there’s no obvious reason for them, like a sore throat, runny nose or other mild infection
  • the lymph nodes get bigger than the size of a small marble
  • your child has swollen lymph nodes in his neck and has trouble swallowing or breathing
  • your child complains of pain or tenderness around the swollen lymph nodes
  • your child has red skin over the area of swollen lymph nodes
  • your child has swollen lymph nodes in the neck, fever, rash and red hands, soles, lips and tongue. These might be the signs of Kawasaki disease
  • your child has swollen lymph nodes and you think your child is really unwell.

Treatment for swollen lymph nodes

Treatment will depend on what’s causing the swollen lymph nodes.

If your child’s swollen lymph nodes are caused by a viral infection, all you can do is treat the symptoms of the virus like the sore throat and fever.

If your child’s lymph nodes are swollen because of a bacterial infection, your child might need antibiotics.

In rare cases, a lymph node itself becomes infected by bacteria. If this has happened, the gland will be large, the skin around it will be red, and it will be very painful, especially when you press on it. Seek immediate medical attention – your child will need antibiotics and might need the infection drained.