Lymph nodes are small glands that filter lymph fluid and help fight infections. When bacteria invade the body, lymph nodes may swell as they produce extra white blood cells to combat the infection. A swollen, painful lymph node that continues to get worse can form an abscess and require draining by a doctor.
What is an Infected Lymph Node?
Lymph nodes are oval-shaped glands located throughout the body that make up part of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels, nodes, and organs that work with the immune system to filter fluids and fight infection. There are hundreds of lymph nodes in the body, with clusters found in the neck, armpits, groin, abdomen, and chest.
Lymph nodes swell in reaction to illness or infection as part of the immune response. This allows them to trap and filter bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders. Infected lymph nodes are tender, swollen, or red, a sign that white blood cells are working hard to contain the infection. In some cases, the node may continue to enlarge and turn into an abscess that requires drainage.
Causes of Infected Lymph Nodes
There are several potential causes of an infected lymph node, including:
- Bacterial infections – Strep throat, tooth abscesses, skin infections, or infections in other parts of the body can lead to inflamed lymph nodes as they drain fluid from infected sites.
- Viral infections – Viruses like mononucleosis (mono), chickenpox, shingles, HIV, and herpes simplex can trigger lymph node swelling as the body fights the illness.
- Fungal infections – Ringworm, athlete’s foot, and yeast infections may cause inflamed lymph nodes near the site of infection.
- Parasitic infections – Parasites like toxoplasmosis and malaria can result in swollen lymph nodes during the body’s immune response.
- Cancer – Lymphomas and metastatic cancers like breast cancer and melanoma can cause enlarged lymph nodes.
- Other medical conditions – Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and sarcoidosis involve lymph node swelling.
Signs and Symptoms
Swollen or enlarged lymph nodes are typically the main symptom. Other signs of an infected lymph node include:
- Tenderness and pain – This may range from mild discomfort to severe pain when touched or pressed.
- Redness of the skin over the node – This occurs as inflammation increases.
- Warmth around the area – Increased blood flow to the infected node can make it feel warm.
- Fever – A fever often accompanies an infection as the immune system responds.
- Chills, fatigue, and body aches – An infected node may cause flu-like symptoms.
- Swelling lasting longer than 2-4 weeks – Lymph nodes that remain enlarged may form an abscess.
Possible complications from an infected lymph node include:
- Abscess – If the body can’t clear the infection, pus may collect inside the node, forming a pocket of infection called an abscess. Abscesses often need to be drained.
- Cellulitis – A skin infection can occur if the bacteria spread from the infected node into surrounding tissues.
- Lymphangitis – This is an infection of the lymph channels that drain the node, causing red streaks on the skin.
- Sepsis – If left untreated, bacteria from an infected node can spread to the bloodstream and cause a life-threatening systemic infection.
- Hardened/scarred lymph nodes – Chronic swelling and scarring may remain even after the infection clears up.
When to See a Doctor
See a doctor promptly if you develop any signs of an infected lymph node, such as:
- Lymph node swelling, tenderness, redness, or warmth that persists longer than 1-2 weeks
- Pus draining from a lymph node
- Intense pain that worsens or spreads
- Fever above 101°F (38.3°C)
- Red streaks expanding from the area
- Swelling that rapidly enlarges
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing due to swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- HIV risk factors with swollen lymph nodes lasting over 4 weeks
Make an appointment with your doctor to determine the cause and get appropriate treatment. You may need antibiotics to clear a bacterial or fungal infection. Viral infections usually resolve on their own, but medications can help relieve symptoms. Seek emergency care for signs of sepsis like high fever, confusion, or low blood pressure.
Treatment depends on identifying the underlying cause of the infected lymph node. Your doctor may:
- Perform tests like a complete blood count, cultures, or biopsy to diagnose the infection
- Prescribe antibiotics to treat bacterial infections
- Give antifungal drugs for fungal infections
- Treat the underlying condition, like HIV or arthritis
- Recommend over-the-counter pain relievers and warm compresses to help relieve discomfort
- Prescribe antiviral medication if needed for symptomatic relief
- Refer you to a surgeon for drainage if an abscess forms
For mild infections, antibiotics and rest may be enough for the lymph nodes to heal. Take all medication as directed. Be sure to complete the full course even if you start feeling better. See your doctor promptly if symptoms don’t improve or get worse on treatment.
If an infected lymph node develops an abscess, it will likely need to be drained. Draining the pus can help relieve symptoms and speed healing. There are two main approaches:
- Needle aspiration – A doctor inserts a needle into the abscess to draw out as much pus as possible. This is done with local anesthesia in a doctor’s office.
- Incision and drainage – A surgical cut is made to open and drain the abscess. This is done in a clinic or hospital with local or general anesthesia.
After draining the abscess, the doctor may leave a small drain in place temporarily to keep it empty while it heals from the inside out. You will also receive antibiotics. Properly draining the infection can help prevent complications and recurrence.
Home Remedies for Relief
In addition to medical treatment, you can use home remedies to help manage discomfort from infected lymph nodes:
- Warm compresses – Apply a warm, wet washcloth to the area for 10-15 minutes several times a day to promote drainage and relaxation.
- Rest – Get extra rest to allow your body to fight the infection.
- Gentle massage – Lightly massage around the nodes to help stimulate drainage.
- Over-the-counter pain medicine – Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help relieve swelling and pain.
- Stay hydrated – Drink plenty of fluids to keep lymph drainage flowing.
- Saltwater gargle – For swollen nodes in the neck, gargle with warm salt water to ease discomfort.
- Immune boosting diet – Eat healthy foods high in vitamins and antioxidants.
- Avoid irritants – Don’t wear tight clothing, shave, or use skin products that could further inflame nodes.
See your doctor if home remedies aren’t providing relief within a few days or if symptoms worsen. You may need prescription medication or drainage for resolution.
It’s not always possible to prevent infections that lead to swollen lymph nodes. But you can take some steps to lower your risk:
- Practice good hygiene – Wash hands frequently, avoid close contact when sick, cover coughs and sneezes.
- Treat skin wounds – Clean and bandage cuts, burns, or scrapes to prevent bacterial infection.
- Avoid sharing personal items – Don’t share razors, linens, or towels to prevent spreading infections.
- Get immunizations – Stay up to date on vaccines to help prevent viral and bacterial illnesses.
- Use insect repellent – Prevent mosquito bites to lower risk of diseases like malaria.
- Wear protective clothing – Cover skin with gloves, long sleeves, and pants if handling irritating chemicals.
See your doctor regularly and get prompt treatment for any infections before they can spread to lymph nodes. Staying healthy and avoiding illness when possible can help reduce episodes of swollen nodes.
When to Seek Emergency Care
In most cases, it’s not an emergency if you have swollen or mildly painful lymph nodes. However, seek emergency care if you experience:
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Rapid swelling that starts to affect your airway
- Intense, sudden pain
- High fever over 103°F (39.4°C)
- Extreme redness, warmth, or purulent drainage
- Inflamed nodes accompanied by a severe headache or stiff neck
- Pus draining from multiple nodes
- Signs of an allergic reaction like hives, wheezing, or tongue swelling
Severe symptoms may indicate a spreading infection or abscess that could become life-threatening without urgent care. Go to an emergency room or call 911 if you have any concerning symptoms related to swollen lymph nodes.
Outlook and Recovery
With appropriate treatment, most people recover completely from an infected lymph node. The outlook depends on:
- Cause – Viral infections often resolve on their own, while bacterial infections require antibiotics. Persistent swelling can occur with chronic conditions like HIV or rheumatoid arthritis.
- Timely treatment – Early treatment with antibiotics or drainage improves the likelihood of a good recovery.
- Immune status – Those with weakened immune systems may have more complications and trouble fighting off infections.
- Development of abscess – Drainage is required if a fluid-filled pocket of pus forms within the node.
Mild infections should start improving within a few days of starting antibiotics. The lymph nodes tend to gradually shrink back to normal size over the next few weeks as the infection clears. Some residual swelling may remain for up to a month.
With proper treatment, serious complications like sepsis are unlikely. See your doctor promptly if you don’t improve with medications, or if symptoms suddenly worsen or return after treatment. This may require hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics or surgical drainage.
Recurrent infections in the same lymph nodes can lead to chronic swelling and hardness. See your doctor if you experience frequent infections to determine if an underlying condition needs to be addressed.
When to Follow up with Your Doctor
Schedule a follow up appointment with your doctor if:
- Swelling, pain, warmth does not start to improve within 48-72 hours of starting antibiotics
- Enlarged nodes last longer than 4 weeks after treatment
- You complete a course of antibiotics but symptoms return
- A lymph node becomes enlarged again after resolving
- You develop any signs of a complication like an abscess or cellulitis
Routine follow up allows your doctor to monitor your response to treatment and change therapies if needed. Seek prompt medical attention if an infection seems to be getting worse instead of better.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Questions to ask your doctor when treating an infected lymph node include:
- What is the likely cause of my swollen lymph nodes?
- Do I need any tests like bloodwork or a biopsy?
- Should I take antibiotics or just over-the-counter medication?
- How long will it take for the nodes and pain to improve?
- Do I need to avoid any activities while I recover?
- How can I manage symptoms like pain or fever at home?
- When should I follow up with you again?
- Could swollen nodes be a sign of a more serious illness?
- What steps can I take to prevent this from happening again?
Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor any other questions you may have about diagnosing and treating your swollen lymph nodes. Share all your symptoms and any other medical conditions you have.
Swollen, painful lymph nodes are a signal that the body is fighting an infection. Infections from bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites can cause lymph node inflammation. Typical symptoms include enlargement, tenderness, warmth, and redness over nodes. Abscesses sometimes form if the body can’t clear the infection.
See a doctor for any swollen nodes lasting over 2 weeks for diagnosis and treatment. Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections while viral ones usually resolve on their own. Abscesses require drainage of the pus. Home remedies like warm compresses, OTC pain relievers, massage, and rest can provide symptom relief.
With prompt treatment, outcome is generally very good. Follow up with your doctor if swelling persists longer than one month or returns after treatment. Report any signs of worsening infection or complications. Practicing good hygiene and preventing insect bites can help reduce the frequency of swollen nodes.