Throughout your body, there are hundreds of small, bean-shaped glands called lymph nodes. These nodes are part of your lymphatic system, a network of tissues and organs that help to filter out harmful bacteria, viruses, and other substances from your body.
Your lymphatic system is sometimes referred to as your body’s “security alarm system” because it detects and responds to potential threats. It may also be thought of as your “trash collectors” or “sewage system”—the “sanitation department” that cleans out the waste that builds up in your tissues.
Where To Feel Your Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes are especially concentrated in your neck, armpits, and groin area.
You might not even realize they’re there until you experience swollen lymph nodes—when they are not swollen, you won’t be able to feel them.
To check if your lymph nodes are swollen, you can run your fingers lightly over these areas of your body to feel for bumps:
- From in front of your ear, down your jawline
- From behind your ear, down your neck
- Underneath your jawline
- Anywhere in your neck area
- Between your neck and collar bone
- Gently squeeze around where your armpit meets your chest
- In your armpit, on the underside of your upper arm
- Near your groin area, on the inside of your upper thigh
If your lymph nodes are not swollen, you won’t notice anything unusual. But if they are swollen, they may feel like peas or beans underneath the skin. They might not all be swollen everywhere at the same time. And they might feel different in size. Some may be larger than others.
Why Are My Lymph Nodes Swollen?
The most common cause of swollen lymph nodes is some kind of infection by a virus or bacteria. Any infection can cause them to well, including:
- The common cold
- The flu
- Strep throat
- Pink eye
- Tooth infections
When your body fights off an infection, your lymph nodes usually swell up as a response. This is because they are working hard to identify, track, and remove germs from your body.
Lymph Nodes and Cancer
In some cases, swollen lymph nodes can be related to cancer.
Cancer cells may break off from a tumor and use the lymphatic system to spread to other body parts. This is what’s known as stage 3 cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with an earlier cancer stage, your healthcare team may instruct you to check your lymph nodes for any changes routinely. This could help them track how your treatment works and catch any cancer cells that may have spread before they become a bigger problem.
Sometimes cancer can start in the lymph nodes themselves. This is referred to as lymphoma.
Lymphoma may cause the lymph nodes to swell to the size of a grape. Other symptoms of lymphoma include:
- unexpected weight loss
- night sweats
- frequent or long-lasting infections
See a doctor for a full evaluation if you notice your lymph nodes are very enlarged or you have these additional symptoms.
But before you panic, remember that swollen lymph nodes are usually due to something more common, like a cold or the flu.