Learning about lymph nodes

Your body works hard to keep you healthy. You’re constantly filtering germs, fighting back against disease and trying to stay a happy human being.

One of the primary systems in our body that deal with our immune system is our lymph nodes. lymphYou have about 600 lymph nodes distributed throughout your body, with clusters found in the neck, underarms, groin, chest and abdomen.

Thu P. Vo, DO is a family physician at the Scott & White Gatesville Clinic and she helps to keep families healthy with regular check-ups and treatment. If you are feeling sick, someone like Dr. Vo may check your lymph nodes to see how your immune system is doing.

“Lymph nodes, or lymph glands, are little oval-shaped organs of the lymphatic system,” says Dr. Vo. “They act as filters for foreign particles and are important to our immune system as they are packed with white blood cells (called lymphocytes and macrophages) that are activated when there is stress to the body from infection or cancers.”

What Happens to Lymph Nodes if There’s a Problem?

If you have an infection or cancer, your lymph nodes are affected. This is called lymphadenopathy when the nodes are abnormal in size, consistency or number.

Dr. Vo says lymph nodes can be:

  • Swollen and tender
  • Fixed and stony hard
  • Firm and rubbery
  • Infected, called suppurant nodes
  • Shotty, meaning there are small nodes like buckshot under the skin
  • Matted, meaning stuck together

Doctors analyze lymph nodes to see how your body is reacting. You may have a sore throat, dental infection or perhaps even cancer. In all of these cases, your lymph nodes will provide insight to what your body is dealing with.

Dr. Vo says if one lymph node is found, they usually look for others. This can help experts classify the lymph nodes in terms of localized, meaning there is an issue in one body part, or generalized, meaning lymph nodes are affected in more than one body part.

“The majority of time, lymphadenopathy is localized from an illness, like upper respiratory infection, dental disease, skin infection, insect bites or recent immunizations,” says Dr. Vo. “Sometimes lymphadenopathy is generalized, like in cancers.”

If you have an issue with your lymph nodes, it doesn’t necessarily mean cancer. The majority of the time, the problem is limited and will resolve when the source of the illness or stress goes away.

How Can I Keep My Lymph Nodes Healthy?

In order to prevent illness you should remember to:

  • Wash your hands
  • Cover a cough
  • Eat fruits and vegetable
  • Exercise
  • Decrease stress
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Get annual flu shots
  • Stay up-to-date on other immunizations

See your provider if you see or feel any lymph nodes that are in unusual places. You will also want to go in if you feel lymph nodes that aren’t related to a recent illness or skin infection, or be sure to make an appointment if the lymph nodes are present for more than a few weeks.

Dr. Vo also recommends to see your provider if you have other symptoms such as weight loss, fatigue, or night sweats. Be sure to also let your provider know about any recent travel, new medications, or a change in work environment.

About the author

Jill Taylor
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I contribute content and skills as a freelance writer for Baylor Scott & White Health. I enjoy improving our connection with our readers, patients and communities by assisting with a wide range of writing projects.

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Learning about lymph nodes