Here's What It Really Means When You Have Swollen Lymph Nodes

Getting an infection of any kind is never fun. Besides feeling achy, tired, feverish, or dealing with a sore throat, there's another symptom you might notice when you're fighting something – swollen lymph nodes.

Lymph nodes, aka lymph glands, are part of the body's lymphatic system – a network of hundreds of glands and vessels that carry lymphatic fluid throughout the body. The nodes are clustered especially in the neck, armpits, groin, chest and abdomen (via Health).

The lymphatic system is an important part of the body's immune system. Lymph nodes store white blood cells – the cells that attack and destroy invading pathogens, like bacteria and viruses. When pathogens or diseased cells are detected, they pass through the 'checkpoint' of the lymph nodes, where they are filtered and destroyed by the white blood cells, (via Visible Body).

If the body is fighting an infection, the lymph nodes accumulate the pathogenic cells and debris, along with white blood cells, causing them to swell. And usually, swollen lymph nodes occur in the same part of the body as where the infection is located. For example, strep throat, or an upper respiratory infection, can cause swollen lymph glands in the neck area. This is common and not usually a cause for concern. Often, swollen lymph nodes will go away on their own as the infection subsides.

In lymph nodes are large, painful, or don't go away, get them checked out

There are some cases where swollen lymph nodes could be a sign of a more serious problem, and in that case, it's important to get them checked out by a medical professional.

Nikhil Bhayani, M.D., an infectious disease physician with Texas Health Resources in Bedford, TX, says, "Swollen glands could be caused by a number of things, including cold and flu infections, mononucleosis, sexually transmitted illnesses, skin infections, rheumatoid arthritis, and even certain types of cancers, all of which deserve a thorough check-up," (via Prevention).

So while swollen lymph nodes are usually a good sign that your body's immune system is working hard to fight an infection, keep an eye on them. If they are larger than an inch in diameter or growing quickly, very painful, inflamed, or accompanied by other symptoms of illness like fever, night sweats or fatigue, get them checked out by your doctor to check for more serious causes, (via Cleveland Clinic).