How to tell a lump from a lymph node


Lymph nodes are tiny organs that appear throughout the body and function as part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is an extension of the immune system. The lymph nodes filter a fluid called lymph, trapping bacteria and other harmful substances. Due to their function, they often swell during infection.

Illustration by Jessica Olah, Get Meds Info

Definition of lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are found in the neck, armpits, chest, abdomen, and groin. Medical professionals know where these nodes are located, which is very helpful in diagnosing lumps. Swollen lymph nodes are often accompanied by other symptoms of infection.

When you have swollen lymph nodes, people or even healthcare professionals may call them swollen glands . This can get confusing because the actual gland is the organ that secretes something: hormones, saliva, oil, etc.

If you have an active infection, you may feel lumps on your neck, especially under the jaw and chin; These are the lymph nodes. When the infection has passed, they should return to their normal size.

Some of the more common conditions that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:

Infection is by far the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes. However, enlarged lymph nodes can also be caused by cancer, especially Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma . Swollen lymph nodes can also be due to immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.

How to examine the lymph nodes

If your lymph nodes are enlarged, you can often feel them by pressing lightly on them and tracing them with your three middle fingers:

  • Behind the ears and under the chin
  • On both sides of the neck
  • From the middle of the armpit to the side of the chest.
  • Along the crease where the thigh meets the pelvis.

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Identification of bumps and tumors

Abnormal lumps and lumps are often mistaken for lymph nodes due to their location. They can often be distinguished by their hardness, texture, regularity, and whether they float freely or adhere to other fabrics. While most will be benign (benign), some may be malignant (cancerous).


Knot is actually a generic term. This can be applied to all types of tumors, both malignant and non-malignant. Doctors usually call a lump a knot until they find out what the lump is. Cysts are sometimes called nodules.

Nodules can form anywhere in the body, including the thyroid gland and vocal cords. The nodule may be a solid mass of benign tissue. Whether or not a nodule is treated depends on whether it is causing symptoms, how fast it grows, and where it is in the body.

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Cysts are fluid-filled sacs of tissue that look like lumps. They are not solid. Cysts can occur in almost any area of the body. Surgical drainage may be required depending on its size and location. Many cysts go away on their own.

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A lipoma is a benign, fat-filled lump. They are not cancerous, but sometimes they must be removed surgically, depending on their size and location. People who have had a lipoma or a family history of lipoma tend to get it again.

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Goiter or colloid nodular goiter

A goiter is a lump in the thyroid gland . They appear in the front of the neck, but can deviate to one side. Since your thyroid moves up and down as you swallow, the goiter and thyroid lumps will, too.

A goiter often indicates a dysfunction of the thyroid gland, but it can also occur with normal thyroid function. Some types of goiter are caused by iodine deficiency . It was once common in the United States, but the prevalence has dropped dramatically as table salt has been fortified with iodine .

Goiter can be treated with medications such as synthroid ( levothyroxine ) if it is caused by a thyroid hormone deficiency, or radioactive iodine if it is associated with too much thyroid hormone. In some cases, it may need to be surgically removed.

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Boils are skin infections that can appear as lumps. Most of the time, they are close to the surface of the skin and pus can leak out. However, this is not always the case. Boils can be deep and appear or feel as a fairly large hard lump. They can occur anywhere on the body.

Boils are treated with drainage. Sometimes antibiotics are also needed: topical or oral in pill form or, in extreme cases, intravenously. Sometimes a surgeon known as I&D (incision and drainage) may require you to drain them .

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Malignant tumors

Malignant formations are called tumors. Although some sources say that the definition of a tumor is an abnormal growth of any tissue, this term is not generally used to define a benign mass. Cancer cells are mutated cells that grow and enlarge at an abnormal rate and are very difficult to stop. There are thousands of ways to classify tumor types.

Although there are many symptoms of cancer, a visible lump is often the first thing the patient notices and seeks treatment. That is why, despite the high probability that the tumor is not cancerous, it is so scary to notice any tumor in your body and that is why it is so important to monitor the tumor and seek medical help.

Cancers with palpable lumps are most often found in the breast, testicles, or lymph nodes. Fluid-filled tumors that roll easily on the fingers are less likely to be cancerous than hard, uneven, rooted, and painless tumors, according to the American Cancer Society .

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Diagnostic tools

For swollen glands, your doctor will often notice other signs of infection. If the infection is bacterial, such as a sore throat, you will need antibiotics. If the infection is viral, such as mono, it will take time for your immune system to fight the infection and the glands will shrink.

Other outbreaks may require multiple tests. Ultrasound, x-rays, computed tomography, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be helpful in determining whether a tumor is solid or fluid-filled. It can also measure bumps and sometimes indicate how the bump is affecting surrounding body structures.

However, a biopsy will eventually be required (unless the tumor is caused by an infection or is fluid-filled). A biopsy involves taking a small amount of tissue from a tumor and testing it in a laboratory. This will allow you to determine precisely what type of stroke it is.

Sometimes the fabric can be removed with a needle. In other cases, a sample will need to be taken surgically. Your healthcare provider will determine if and when a biopsy is necessary and determine the best way to obtain the tissue.

Frequent questions

What do enlarged lymph nodes mean?

Lymph nodes filter a fluid known as lymph that travels through the body's lymphatic system. Lymph nodes can become enlarged or enlarged with an infection and are sometimes called swollen glands.

What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes?

Swollen lymph nodes are caused by infection or disease. Swollen lymph nodes usually occur with colds, flu, mononucleosis, strep throat, or dental infections. More serious conditions that can cause swollen lymph nodes include HIV, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain cancers.

What do swollen glands look like?

An enlarged lymph node feels like a small soft lump under the skin in the groin, armpit, neck, under the jaw and chin, behind the ears, or on the back of the head. Enlarged lymph nodes range from pea to grape. Swollen glands are often painful to the touch and can be uncomfortable.

How are swollen glands treated?

Swollen lymph nodes are a symptom of a disease other than the disease itself, so treatment will depend on the cause of the swollen lymph nodes. If it is caused by a bacterial infection, such as a sore throat, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection. To ease the discomfort of swollen glands, try using a warm compress and over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen).

What is the difference between a cyst and a swollen gland?

Cysts and swollen glands feel similar – they are soft lumps under the skin. One of the main differences is the location. Lymph node enlargement occurs only where there are lymph nodes: in the groin, armpit, neck, under the jaw and chin, behind the ears, or on the back of the head. Swollen glands also appear with the infection, they appear quickly and then disappear after a few days. Cysts can be found in all tissues of the body, but they are usually found under the skin. They are smooth, fluid-filled, and mobile.

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