Swollen lymph nodes are usually a telltale sign that your body is fighting off an infection, whether it’s from bacteria or a virus. This can stem from strep throat, an ear infection, mononucleosis, or even an infected tooth.
You might experience swollen lymph nodes—small, bean-shaped glands throughout your entire body—on your neck, in your armpits, under your chin, or around your groin, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But is it possible that your swollen lymph nodes are caused by something else, like allergies? If you’re a seasonal allergy sufferer, you may be wondering if allergens like pollen and grass could be behind your sudden swelling, especially in your throat area. Here’s what you need to know.
What are lymph nodes, again?
Lymph nodes are part of your lymphatic system, a network that routes lymph fluid throughout your body, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Your lymph system is a crucial part of your immune system.
The job of your lymph system is to collect fluid, waste material, viruses, and bacteria that are in your tissues and send them to your lymph nodes. These nodes are small structures that work as filters for harmful substances, the ACS explains. They help fight infection by attacking and destroying germs (thanks to unique white blood cells called lymphocytes) that are carried to them by lymph fluid.
You have hundreds of lymph nodes located all around your body—some are deep in your body, like between your lungs or around your bowel, and others are closer to your skin.
After lymph fluid flows around your body, it dumps filtered fluid, salts, and proteins back into your bloodstream.
Why do lymph nodes swell?
When a lymph node is trying to filter out pathogens, it can swell or enlarge while it goes to work, the ACS explains. Usually, only one area of lymph nodes swells at once, and the most common areas for lymph nodes to swell are in the neck, groin, and armpits. There’s actually a medical term for this: lymphadenopathy.
Swollen lymph nodes are a signal that something is off, but it’s usually paired with other symptoms that will help you and your doctor figure out what, exactly, is going on in your body.
Can allergies cause swollen lymph nodes?
Susan Besser, M.D., a primary care physician at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, agrees. “An upper respiratory infection, a cold, allergies—all can cause lymph nodes to swell as the body responds to the immunologic ‘crisis,’” she explains. These are most often felt on either side of the neck, under the jaw around the throat, or behind the ears.
Children are more likely to experience swollen lymph nodes due to allergies, but “it can happen” in adult allergy sufferers, notes Catherine Monteleone, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
That said, it’s not a typical symptom and it is unlikely that seasonal allergies would cause someone to have swollen lymph nodes, Dr. Parikh says. The only time that would happen is if your allergies are “very severe,” she notes.
It is more common, though, to develop swollen lymph nodes as part of a secondary infection from your allergies, like a sinus infection, says Omid Mehdizadeh, M.D., an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
How to treat swollen lymph nodes from allergies
Swollen lymph nodes are a sign that something is off in your body. To reduce the swelling, you need to treat the underlying cause, Dr. Parikh says. Here are a few things you can do:
Take an allergy medication. If you suspect that severe allergies are behind your swollen lymph nodes, taking a fast-acting allergy medication like an antihistamine may help. “If the allergy symptoms are controlled, the lymph node swelling should go down,” Dr. Besser says.
Apply a warm compress to the area. It’s unlikely to make the swelling go down, but it may help you feel a little better, Dr. Besser says.
Gargle with warm salt water. Dr. Monteleone recommends this soothing home remedy if you have swollen lymph nodes in your throat.
❗When to call your doctor if you have swollen lymph nodes
If your swollen lymph nodes come and go and don’t get “significantly large,” then you’re probably OK to wait and see if allergy medication helps, Dr. Besser says.
But, if the swelling persists for several days, doesn’t seem to be getting better, and is even getting worse, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. Ditto if you develop a fever (note: allergies do not cause a fever) or if you are seriously uncomfortable around your lymph nodes. “That could be a sign of infection,” Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
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