Are Enlarged Lymph Nodes Cause for Concern? What Parents Need to Know

Female doctor examining girl

Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck are very common, but can be bothersome and painful in kids and adults alike. Lymph nodes can also cause concern to parents when they seem to remain enlarged for longer than expected.

What Are Lymph Nodes And What Makes Them Swell?

Lymph nodes are immune tissue. If you think about the immune system as the military defense of the body, lymph nodes are like the military base camps. Though we most often become aware of the lymph nodes in our neck, we actually have lymph nodes all over our body. When the immune system starts battling a virus or bacteria in a specific place in the body, the troops (immune cells) get sent to the closest military base (lymph nodes) as part of the military attack on the infection. As a result, the lymph node gets bigger.

The immune system needs an average of 3-5 days to get rid of a viral infection–sometimes longer for a bacterial infection. However, the lymph node swelling slowly decreases over a week or two after the battle is won. Frequently–particularly with lymph nodes of the head and neck in toddlers–lymph nodes can remain enlarged and palpable for weeks.

When Is An Enlarged Lymph Node Cause For Concern?

Benign (non-cancerous) lymph nodes are usually small (about 1 cm. or less in diameter), move, and decrease in size after your child’s illness is over. The node feels like a marble under the skin that slides a bit when pressed.

See your doctor if you child has many lymph nodes that are large, have overlying skin redness, do not move, are “squishy” when pressed, or don’t go away after they have been well for 3-4 weeks. This is especially important if your child is also experiencing drenching night sweats or weight loss.

Although rare, sometimes lymph nodes themselves can get infected, requiring antibiotic treatment. Cancer is the rarest cause of enlarged lymph nodes, particularly in children.

author name

Joan B. Thode, MD

Joan B. Thode, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician with LG Health Physicians Roseville Pediatrics.

Education: Undergraduate—Franklin & Marshall College; Medical School—George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Residency—NYU Langone Medical Center.

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