What is lymphadenopathy?

Lymphadenopathy is the term for swelling of the lymph nodes. These are the bean-shaped organs found in the underarm, groin, neck, chest, and abdomen. They act as filters for the lymph fluid as it circulates through the body. Lymphadenopathy can occur in just one area of the body, such as the neck, or it may be generalized, with lymph node enlargement in several areas. The cervical lymph nodes found in the neck are the most common site of lymphadenopathy.

What causes lymphadenopathy?

The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and functions to fight disease and infections. As infection-fighting cells and fluid build up, the lymph nodes enlarge to many times their normal size. Nearly all children will develop lymphadenopathy at some time, as the condition commonly occurs in response to an infection from a virus, such as an upper respiratory infection. Bacterial infections, such as strep throat caused by the streptococcus bacterium, can also cause lymphadenopathy.

Since enlarged lymph nodes are often near the source of infection, their location can help determine the cause. For example, an infant with a scalp infection may have enlarged lymph nodes at the back of the neck. Swollen lymph nodes around the jaw may be due to an infection in the teeth or mouth. However, the lymphadenopathy may be generalized, with lymph node enlargement in more than one area, which is typical of a viral illness.

Sometimes, one or more lymph nodes themselves can become inflamed and enlarged, a condition called lymphadenitis. Lymph nodes can also enlarge due to cancer in the lymphatic system, such as Hodgkin disease.

What are the symptoms of lymphadenopathy?

In children, it is normal to be able to feel some lymph nodes as small, movable lumps under the skin. However, if the nodes become more enlarged than usual, there may be an underlying problem. The following are the most common symptoms of lymphadenopathy:

  • Swollen, enlarged lumps in the neck, back of the head, or other locations of lymph nodes

  • Tenderness of the nodes, although the nodes may not be painful if the child is no longer ill

  • Fever

  • History of illness

The symptoms of lymphadenopathy may look like other neck masses or medical problems. Always consult your child's health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is lymphadenopathy diagnosed?

Diagnosis of lymphadenopathy is often based on the presence of other conditions, such as an infection. It is important to determine if the child has been exposed to any diseases, such as varicella (chickenpox), or has been bitten by an animal (cat) that may transmit an illness called cat-scratch fever. The size and location of the nodes, how long ago the swelling began, and the presence of pain are helpful in determining the cause. In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, other tests may include a lymph node biopsy in which a sample of tissue is removed from the lymph node and examined under a microscope. Further tests may be necessary for specific diseases or infections that may be related to the lymphadenopathy.

Treatment of lymphadenopathy

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotic medications (to treat an underlying bacterial infection)

  • Continued evaluation (to check the size and location of the enlarged nodes)

  • Medications or procedures (to treat other conditions that may have caused the lymph node enlargement)