Swollen Glands Definition
Swollen glands describe an inflammatory swelling of the glands that occurs when our bodies are fighting off an infection or disease. Typically, the swollen gland will subside once the infection has been fought off. “Swollen glands” commonly refer to the swelling of lymph nodes. The two have almost become synonymous. Lymph nodes are small areas of swelling that occur where clear lymph fluid is filtered through and lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) are made.
Lymph nodes are bean-shaped glands dispersed throughout the length of our bodies. Some clusters lie in the neck, while others will lie in the thighs and torso. When the lymph nodes become swollen, it is a clear clinical sign that the body is battling an infection. This infection can be local or spread out. The swollen lymph nodes can be felt as little clustered bumps under the skin. The lymph nodes take part in a series of organs that protect the body from harmful agents. Other such organs include the spleen and the tonsils. They will filter out harmful bacteria from the body that, once recognized by lymphocytes, will be targeted and discarded in a healthy patient.
The image depicts an early 20th century photograph of a Congolese man with severely swollen glands.
The Lymph System
The lymphatic system is a crucial part of our body’s natural defenses. The lymph fluid itself is comprised of nutrients and waste material that is exchanged between the tissues of the body and the blood. The lymph will pass through the lymph nodes and in turn will be filtered through. Bacteria, viruses, and foreign agents that were in the fluid will thus be trapped. The lymph node was designed to create immune cells, as well, which works particularly well in this scenario. The substances that have been trapped will be directly acted upon by the lymphocytes the lymph nodes create. The lymph nodes thus have a role in destroying harmful agents that, in turn, will prevent bodily illness.
Common Sites of Lymph Nodes:
- The armpits
- Above the collarbone
Likewise, the lymph nodes can either be found in groups or as singular nodes. They are normally round in shape, but can range in size. Some may be as small as the head of a pin or as big as an olive. The clusters of swollen glands are normally felt in the neck, the underarms, or the groin. We may be reminded of these areas during a standard physical, when our physicians will run their hands along these areas to check for inflammation. Most lymph nodes, however, cannot be felt and are generally not tender to the touch. It is safe to say lymph nodes will not be palpable unless they are swollen or enlarged. But it is important to note that although swollen glands commonly refer to swollen lymph nodes, lymph nodes are not glands themselves. Lymph nodes can be better described as clusters of white blood cells scattered through our body as a protective measure.
Lymph Node Functions:
- Help filter out excess protein
- Remove excess fluid
- Create specialized white blood cells
- Create antibodies
- Filter off viruses and bacteria
An important question to ask, then, is what causes a gland to swell? As previously discussed, swollen glands can result from a bacterial or viral infection. For instance, the axillary (or underarm) glands will become more robust from a neighboring viral infection. This may explain why when we are sick with the flu, we may feel some tenderness in our armpits. At any given time, the body is populated with many kinds of bacteria and viruses. An abscessed tooth, an ear infection, or the common cold or flu will all expose the lymph nodes to germs via the lymph fluid that filters through. This will often cause the glands to swell as they fight these agents off. Of course, a swollen gland may be indicative of a much more serious problem. Tuberculosis is a bacterium that ravages the lungs, and an early sign of its presence in the body may begin with a few swollen glands. Lupus is another immune issue that is hard to pin down since its symptoms are so commonly found with less serious illness. Lupus patients will experience symptoms as mundane as fever, fatigue, rashes, and bodily weakness that can be easily confused with a less serious illness. An indicator that will perhaps sway a physician to run a lupus workup will be checking for swollen glands, since lupus affects the entire immune system and inflamed tissue will be found throughout the body.
However, swollen glands can also result from direct physical injury. A cut, an abrasion, or a bite near a gland will cause the neighboring glands to swell in response to the trauma. A more serious ailment that will produce swollen glands are growths. Tumors from breast cancer or lymphoma will (albeit rarely) give rise to axillary gland swelling. Testicular cancer can likewise swell the lymph nodes in the groin, while a tumor near the breasts, lungs, or neck may swell the glands located above the collarbone. A more systemic cancer that will also give rise to swollen glands is leukemia, or cancer of the cells that produce blood. Cancer of the lymphatic system itself, a lymphoma, will lead to swollen glands along with compromised lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus glands.
Common Causes of Gland Swelling:
- Ear infections
- Common cold or flu
- HIV infection
- Infected tooth
- Strep Throat
- Immune disease
Swollen Glands Symptoms
Though the source of the swelling will affect the breadth of its symptoms, a swollen gland will lead to a predictable set of symptoms across the board. Local swelling is most often preceded by a physical injury like a cut or a bite. Both of these traumas involve the breaking of skin. This, of course, will signal the body to do everything to prevent the passage of harmful substances through the opening and to create white blood cells to fight off future infection. Since lymph nodes are essentially stores of white blood cells, this will unsurprisingly lead to high activity and inflammation near the affected area. The ensuing sensations may include warmth, pain, and tenderness in the surrounding area. If a swollen gland is in a site near the legs, the patient may experience difficulty walking. Other symptoms that accompany swollen lymph nodes are coughing, runny nose, sweating, fatigue, fever and chills. If the lymph node itself is hardened or swollen, it is recommended the patient see a doctor. The two parameters that the physician will measure are the size of the swollen gland, and the tenderness to touch. A blood test may be ordered to decipher the presence of certain illnesses or a hormonal disorder. Imaging tests like ultrasounds, X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs may be in order as well to visualize the area of swelling. Moreover, a biopsy may be ordered if the swelling is presumed to be cancerous.
A consultation with a physician is strongly recommended when certain signs are present. Glands that have swollen overnight or are very robust should be examined immediately. Likewise, if the gland feels hardened and set in place rather than soft and movable, it may be a sign of a serious illness. The color of the gland is also telling, since glands that appear bruised with red and purple color tones may rightly cause alarm. The protocol followed timeline-wise is to consult a doctor when glands have remained swollen for more than five days in children or two to four weeks in adults. Common signs of grave illness also include sudden unexplained weight loss and a persistent fever – which are cardinal signs that a possibly life-threatening condition may be at play. If a swollen gland remains untreated, it also runs the danger of forming a pus-filled abscess that may infect the bloodstream, so taking proper precaution is important.
Swollen Gland Treatment
When the swollen glands are due to a bacterial infection, a doctor will prescribe one to several rounds of antibiotics. Antiviral medication will be indicated for patients whose swelling has a viral origin. Likewise, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and ibuprofen will be prescribed to combat painful inflammation. If a swollen gland originates from a cancerous growth, the node will not shrink until the cancer is treated. The tumor may be treated with chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
Other Types of Swollen Glands
A major type of swelling was discussed in this article, which are swollen lymph nodes that have become synonymous with swollen glands in the colloquial sense. However, any type of inflammation or infection of the other glands in our bodies will surely be defined as a swollen gland. For instance, the mumps or flu virus may affect the salivary glands in our mouths (most commonly the largest, the parotid glands). This will cause chronic dry mouth and visible swelling as the salivary glands are prohibited from expelling their saliva. Swelling of the thyroid gland is called a goiter and may result from tumors or nodules that have developed. Essentially any secretory gland in the body can be subjected to swelling from infection or trauma, but proper precautions are always indicated.