Swollen Glands and Other Lumps Under the Skin

Topic Overview

Most swollen glands or lumps under the skin are not cause for concern. The glands (lymph nodes) on either side of the neck, under the jaw, or behind the ears commonly swell when you have a cold or sore throat.

More serious infections may cause the glands to enlarge and become very firm and tender. Glands can also swell and become tender after an injury, such as a cut or bite, or when a tumor or infection occurs in the mouth, head, or neck.

See pictures of swollen lymph nodes and common sites of swollen lymph nodes.

Swollen glands and other lumps under the skin can be caused by many different things, including illness, infection, or another cause:

Infections

Swollen glands commonly develop when the body fights infections from colds, insect bites, or small cuts. More serious infections may cause the glands to enlarge and become firm, hard, or tender. Examples of such infections include:

Noncancerous (benign) growths

Types of noncancerous (benign) growths, which are usually harmless, include:

  • A lipoma, a smooth, rubbery, dome-shaped lump that is easily movable under the skin.
  • A cyst, a sac of fluid and debris that sometimes hurts.
    • Cystic lesions from acne are large pimples that occur deep under the skin.
    • Branchial cleft cysts are found in the neck and do not usually cause problems unless they become infected. These cysts are most common in teenagers.
    • An epidermal cyst (also called a sebaceous cyst) often appears on the scalp, ears, face, and back.
    • A ganglion is a soft, rubbery lump (a type of cyst) on the front or back of the wrist.
  • A thyroid nodule, which is an abnormal growth on the thyroid gland, or an enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) in the neck just below the Adam's apple. Tonsillitis may also cause swelling in the neck.
  • A salivary gland problem, such as inflammation, a salivary stone, an infection, or a tumor.
  • An inflammation of fatty tissue under the skin (erythema nodosum) or overgrown scar tissue (keloid).

Hernias or aneurysms

Hernias or aneurysms are bulging sections in a muscle or blood vessel. A hernia or aneurysm may not be visible and may not cause problems.

  • An inguinal hernia is a soft lump in the groin or near the navel that disappears when you press on it or gets bigger when you cough.
  • A bulging section in the wall of a blood vessel (aneurysm) may feel like a pulsating lump in the abdomen, in the groin, or behind the knee. It can cause serious problems if it involves the blood vessels in the brain or the abdomen. Aneurysms may be a medical emergency and may require immediate evaluation.

Swelling caused by cancer

A lump caused by cancer is usually hard, irregularly shaped, and firmly fixed under the skin or deep in tissue. Although they usually do not cause pain, some types of cancerous lumps are painful. Most lumps are not caused by cancer.

Other causes

Swelling may also be caused by:

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

The following home treatment measures may help you treat a painful lump or swollen gland.

  • Avoid irritation.
    • Do not squeeze, scratch, or pick at the lump. Do not stick a needle in it.
    • Leave the lump exposed to the air whenever possible.
    • Adjust your clothing to avoid rubbing the lump.
  • Prevent infection. Do not squeeze, scratch, drain, or puncture a painful lump. Doing this can irritate or inflame the lump, push any existing infection deeper into the skin, or cause severe bleeding.
  • Apply warm, wet washcloths to the painful lump for 20 to 30 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day. If you prefer, you can also use a hot water bottle over a damp towel. The heat and moisture can soothe the lump, increase blood circulation to the area, and speed healing. It can also bring a lump caused by infection to a head (but it may take 5 to 7 days). Be careful not to burn your skin. Do not use water that is warmer than bathwater.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • A lump or swollen gland gets worse or does not go away after 2 weeks of home treatment.
  • A skin infection develops.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.
  • New symptoms develop.

Prevention

Wash your hands frequently during cold and cough season. This may help prevent some upper respiratory infections that cause glands to swell.

Measures to decrease your risk of infection

  • Keep your skin clean.
    • Wash with lukewarm water and a mild soap or cleanser. Do not use soaps and skin cleansers that contain irritating substances.
    • Rinse your skin thoroughly after you wash it and gently pat it dry.
    • Wash soon after participating in activities that cause you to sweat.
  • Do not use skin care products that contain oil because they may clog your pores. Instead, use water-based skin care products. Read the labels on products and look for the terms oil-free or hypoallergenic.
  • Do not squeeze, scratch, drain, or puncture a painful lump. Doing this can irritate or inflame the lump, push any existing infection deeper into the skin, or cause severe bleeding.
  • Prevent irritation by wearing soft, cotton clothing or moleskin under sports equipment (if possible). Parts of equipment (such as chin straps) can rub your skin and irritate it. Adjust your clothing so that belts and straps or elastic from bras or underwear do not rub against your skin.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your health professional diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • When did you first notice the lump or swollen gland?
  • Has the lump changed? Has it gotten bigger or smaller? Has the color of the lump changed?
  • Have you had any recent illness or injury?
  • Have you had a similar problem in the past in the same area or a different area?
    • Were your symptoms evaluated?
    • Was there a diagnosis?
    • How was it treated?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines have you taken or used? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

Author Jan Nissl, RN, BS
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Alexander H. Murray, MD, FRCPC - Dermatology
Specialist Medical Reviewer Martin Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Last Updated May 6, 2009

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