What are lymph and lymph nodes?
The lymphatic system is comprised of the lymphatic tissue, vessels, organs and the lymph, which help in eliminating waste products from the body.
The lymphatic tissue includes the spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and the lymph nodes. The lymphatic vessels are responsible for transporting the lymph fluid from various body tissues to the circulatory system.
The lymphatic organs include the primary and secondary lymphoid organs. The primary lymphoid organs consist of the bone marrow and the thymus. The bone marrow is responsible for producing the white blood cells (lymphocytes) which help fight off diseases and infections.
The role of the thymus is to produce white blood cells known as T-lymphocytes, which help the immune system to fight off infections and illnesses.
The secondary lymphoid organs consist of the spleen and the lymph nodes. The spleen produces lymphocytes which help fight off antigens. It also removes pathogens and aged red blood cells. The lymph nodes are responsible for helping the immune system maintain proper function by filtering out cancer cells and foreign particles.
What are the lymphatic system functions?
The lymphatic system has several functions. These include:
- Removing the interstitial fluid from the tissues
- It transports and absorbs fats and fatty acids from the digestive system
- It transports lymphocytes(white blood cells) to the lymph nodes
- The lymph fluid transports bacteria to the lymph nodes where they are destroyed. It also transports waste product to the lymph nodes for elimination.
- While the main function of lymphatic system is to help the immune system fight off disease causing pathogens and infections, if it fails to work properly, fluid can build in your tissues causing swelling.
Other causes such as cancer, infections, and blockage can affect the normal functioning of the lymphatic system. And as a result, it may compromise your immune system.
What are lymph nodes?
Lymph nodes are small bean-size (0.5-1cm) organs that form part of the lymphatic system. They contain a number of structures collectively referred to as lymphoid tissue and they acts as filters for bacteria and waste products.
The human body contains about 600 lymph nodes most of which are grouped together in clusters. Although they can be found all over the body, the neck, pelvis and chest are some of the areas that contain a huge number of lymph nodes.
What is lymph?
Lymph is the fluid that is found in the lymphatic system. It contains a family of white blood cells known as lymphocytes and it has a whitish appearance. The reason why it appears white in color is due to the presence of fat products such as fatty acids and cholesterol.
The lymph fluid is responsible for cleaning your tissues. It picks up bacteria and takes it to the lymph nodes where it is destroyed. It also picks up waste products for elimination.
Why lymph nodes swell
Your lymph nodes may become swollen if they are exposed to viruses or bacteria. When the cause is a bacterial or viral infection, the condition is known as lymphadenitis. Your lymphatic vessels may become swollen as well due to infections and this condition is called lymphangitis.
Common causes of swollen lymph nodes in females include:
- Cold or flu
- A tooth infection
- Through infection
- Ear infection
- Glandular fever
Other causes although less common include:
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – a viral infection that weakens the immune system because it destroys the white blood cells responsible for fighting off infections.
- Tuberculosis – a contagious bacterial infection that affects the lungs.
- Cancer of the lymphatic system (lymphoma) – cancer that affects lymphocytes.
- Poor immune system – a weakened immune system may cause your lymph nodes to swell up.
- Leukemia – cancer of the blood (white blood cells)
- Hodgkin Lymphoma – a type of white blood cells(lymphocytes) cancer. Cervical cancer – cancer of the cervix. (HPV- human papillomavirus 16,18 types most common cause)
- Strep throat – bacterial infection that causes the throat to become inflamed.
- Measles – a contagious viral infection that can cause serious complications if it goes untreated.
- Wound infection – wounds that become infected may cause your lymph nodes to become swollen.
- Syphilis – sexually transmitted disease that causes ulcers or sores in your mouth, anus or genitals or even stomach (very rare).
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What are the symptoms of swollen lymph nodes?
The lymphatic system is a network of lymphatic nodes, vessels and organs which are located all over your body. Many of them can be found in the groin, neck, and armpit areas.
So when you have an infection such as a flu or cold, it is common for the lymph nodes around your neck area to swell up.
So symptoms of swollen lymph nodes depend on the cause and the area where the nodes are located.
However, some common symptoms that you may experience include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Night sweats or sweating
- Hard and enlarged nodes
If you experience these symptoms, see a doctor immediately. If the cause is an infection, it is important that you have it treated early to avoid the infection from spreading.
What are the causes of swollen lymph nodes in groin?
When the lymph nodes in your groin become swollen, they may feel like lumps. They may be enlarged and they may feel tender. Common causes of swollen lymph nodes in the groin include sexually transmitted infections and skin infections.
Infections that affect your entire body may such as HIV can cause the lymph nodes in your groin to swell up.
Leukemia, lymphoma, cervical cancer and some types of cancers may also cause the lymph nodes in your groin to become swollen.
When to see a doctor
When your lymph nodes become swollen, this is a sign that your body is trying to fight off an infection. In certain situations, such as when you have a flu or cold, if your lymph nodes become swollen, the swelling will go down by itself after a few days.
But when your lymph nodes become swollen because of a serious infection or illness, you may notice other symptoms. When you notice these signs, it may be time to call your health care provider.
- Lymph nodes that are swollen, but you do not know what is causing them to swell up
- Lymph nodes that have been swollen for more than 14 days
- Swollen lymph nodes that are enlarged and hard
- Persistent fever
- Night sweats, weight loss and/or fatigue
- Difficulty breathing
- Redness and/or pain around the swollen lymph node
Getting a diagnosis
Typically, your doctor will do a physical examination. They may feel around the affected area to see if the area is swollen or sensitive. You may also be asked if you are experiencing any other symptoms.
If the cause is not obvious, your doctor may perform blood tests to check for an infection. The doctor may also perform a CT scan or order X-rays to check for tumors or to determine the source of the infection.
Since the swelling of lymph nodes can be due to a number of reasons, your doctor may perform a lymph node biopsy. This procedure involves removing a sample of your lymph tissue for histopathology test.
How are swollen lymph nodes in groin treated?
Treatment for swollen lymph nodes vary depending on the cause. In some situations, treatment may not be necessary.
However, in certain situations, treatment is necessary, especially when the cause is a serious infection or an illness. Treatment options for swollen lymph nodes include:
- Medication – if your lymph nodes are swollen owing to a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. But if the cause is a viral infection such as HIV, your doctor may prescribe a specific antiretroviral (ART) treatment option.
- Radiation or chemotherapy – certain cancers such as cervical cancer can cause swollen lymph nodes. However, with chemotherapy or radiation treatment, the swelling may go down.
- Home remedies – if the cause of your swollen lymph nodes is a mild infection, your doctor may prescribe a pain killer such as ibuprofen or aspirin. You should also drink lots of water to avoid dehydration.
You can take certain measures that may help prevent your lymph nodes from swelling up such as eating a healthy diet and practicing safe sex. Although these measures may not be very effective at preventing your lymph nodes from swelling up, they may help prevent infections that cause swollen lymph nodes.
Having swollen lymph nodes may not necessarily indicate something serious. It could be a symptom of a flu, cold, or some type of mild infection. By treating the infection, the swelling goes down.
In other cases, swollen lymph nodes could be an indication of something more serious. This is especially in cases where the swollen lymph nodes are due to a medical or health condition. In such cases, the doctor may recommend treatment options and therapies to treat the underlying cause.
It is also important to eat a healthy balanced diet, which can help maintain a healthy immune system. Keep in mind that when you immune system stops functioning normally, you may experience swollen lymph nodes and other symptoms.
If you are sexually active and you have multiple sexual partners, make sure to use protection to avoid getting STIs, which can cause swollen lymph nodes and other health complications.