The lymph system is a network of lymph nodes, lymph ducts, lymph vessels, and organs that produce and move a fluid called lymph from tissues to the bloodstream. For more information on this part of the body, see lymph system.
The lymph glands, or nodes, are small structures that filter the lymph fluid. There are many white blood cells in the lymph nodes to help fight infection.
Lymphadenitis occurs when the glands become enlarged by swelling (inflammation), usually in response to bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The swollen glands are usually found near the site of an infection, tumor, or inflammation.
Lymphadenitis may occur after skin infections or other infections caused by bacteria such as streptococcus or staphylococcus. Sometimes it is caused by rare infections such as tuberculosis or cat scratch disease (Bartonella).
Red, tender skin over lymph node
Swollen, tender, or hard lymph nodes
Lymph nodes may feel rubbery if an abscess has formed.
Signs and tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam, which includes feeling your lymph nodes and looking for signs of injury or infection around any swollen lymph nodes.
A biopsy and culture of the affected area or node may reveal the cause of the inflammation. Blood cultures may reveal spread of infection to the bloodstream.
Lymphadenitis may spread within hours. Treatment should begin promptly.
Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have symptoms of lymphadenitis.
Good general health and hygiene are helpful in the prevention of any infection.
Armitage JO. Approach to the patient with lymphadenopathy and splenomegaly. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 174.
Pasternack MS, Swartz MN. Lymphadenitis and lymphangitis. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 92.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.