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A Complete Guide to Your Lymph Nodes

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Medically reviewed by Sameena Zahoor, MDMedically reviewed by Sameena Zahoor, MD

The lymph nodes are small, round organs that are part of the immune system. Your lymph nodes live in different areas of the body. Their primary function is to store and produce white blood cells that help fight infections. They're also responsible for filtering through and removing any foreign substances—like bacteria or cancerous cells—from the lymphatic fluid.

Problems with your lymph nodes can be a sign of an underlying illness, so it's important to keep them healthy.

Anatomy of the Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes are soft, bean-shaped organs generally less than one centimeter (cm) in size. They're made up of connective tissue and contain white blood cells (also called lymphocytes).  Hundreds of lymph nodes are located throughout the body, with each cluster of lymph nodes responsible for draining lymph fluid from a specific corresponding region.

While they're not all physically noticeable, you may be able to feel certain lymph nodes through the skin in prominent areas, such as your:

  • Armpits
  • Groin
  • Back of the head
  • Behind the ears
  • Underneath the chin and jaw
  • Front, sides, and back of the neck

When the lymph nodes become swollen and larger than 1 cm, this is an abnormality known as lymphadenopathy. It usually happens when the body is fighting an infection, cancer, or an autoimmune disorder, but it can also occur as a result of taking certain medications or have no apparent cause.

What Do the Lymph Nodes Do?

Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system. This network of organs and lymph vessels plays a key role in the immune system, the body's defense mechanism against disease and other foreign invaders. In particular, they:

  • Filter through lymph fluid for signs of infection or other invaders, like cancer cells
  • Use white blood cells to identify the abnormalities or threats
  • Eliminate any damaged or harmful cells that have been found in the lymph fluid

When the lymph nodes become or appear swollen, it typically means that they're producing white blood cells to fight off an infection, inflammation, or a potential illness.

Related Conditions

As part of the lymphatic system, the lymph nodes are linked to several different health conditions. Some of the most common include:

  • Lymphadenopathy: Also known as swollen lymph nodes, this happens when your lymph nodes produce more white blood cells to combat infection or illness. The causes are usually bacterial or viral infections, though lymphoma (cancer) or another chronic health condition may also cause swelling. If your lymph nodes are swollen, you might notice that the glands are tender or warm and may experience other symptoms like fatigue or fever.
  • Lymphedema: This condition causes chronic swelling or build-up of lymph fluid under the skin. It commonly causes symptoms like swelling, discomfort, and skin changes in body parts like the arms, hands, legs, or feet. People with some types of cancer who receive radiation or surgical treatment involving the lymph nodes often experience lymphedema, though it can also develop as a result of factors such as infections, injury, and heart disease.
  • Lymphoma: Cancers that develop in the lymph nodes or lymph tissue are known broadly as lymphoma. The two primary subtypes of lymphoma are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In addition to swollen lymph nodes, other lymphoma symptoms include unintentional weight loss, night sweats, fever, and chills. A weak immune system or certain infections may increase your risk of developing lymphoma.

Diagnostic Testing

If you're experiencing swollen lymph nodes or your provider suspects a concern, they will likely perform a physical exam. This exam allows your provider to check your lymph nodes for swelling, tenderness, and inflammation. Your provider will also assess your vital signs (e.g., heart rate, temperature) and ask about your medical history and current symptoms.

After your provider learns about your symptoms, they can order other diagnostic tests to assess the overall health of your lymph nodes and check for any concerns. Common tests include:

  • Imaging scans to check the size of your lymph nodes
  • Lymph node biopsy to confirm why your lymph nodes are swollen or functioning improperly
  • Blood tests to analyze the number of white blood cells in your body and detect certain conditions, like lymphoma

Tips for Keeping Your Lymph Nodes Healthy

Experts recommend prioritizing the overall health of the lymphatic system to keep your lymph nodes healthy. Your lymphatic system relies on muscle contractions and proactive movement (like exercise, limb elevation, and massage) to retain proper lymph drainage.

You can proactively support the lymph nodes and their function by encouraging healthy lymphatic and immune system functioning by considering the following:

  • Get regular exercise or physical activity each day
  • Eat nutritious foods and follow an anti-inflammatory diet
  • Drink plenty of water to maintain the lymphatic drainage process
  • Sleep 7-9 hours per day to help the body drain lymphatic fluid naturally at night
  • Limit exposure to harsh cleaning products or pesticides, which can affect immune health

A Quick Review

The lymph nodes are tiny organs all over your body that help your immune system filter lymph fluid and produce white blood cells to combat harmful cells like bacteria or viruses. However, your lymph nodes can become swollen and stop working properly if you're experiencing an infection, cancer, inflammation, or other underlying health conditions.

Seeing a healthcare provider can help you get the treatment you need to feel better. Practicing habits such as regular exercise, drinking water, and getting enough sleep can keep your lymph nodes healthy.

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