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Common Causes of Neck Swelling

August 31, 2018

Your neck is a delicate structure that plays a critical role in the overall health of the body. It supports the head and is home to some vital arteries. As a result, it can regulate our heart rate, breathing, and coordination. It also plays a role in crucial immune support and hormone functions. The neck moves in all sorts of directions and performs many tasks. When issues such as illness begin to present themselves in the area, it can cause a lot of problems for the individual. We've highlighted some of the most common neck conditions, their symptoms, and addressed when you should see a doctor to keep your neck healthy.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

The lymph nodes are glands that play a vital role in fighting infection. The nodes are part of a larger network that also includes vessels and organs that runs throughout the body. Lymph nodes are located in clusters in the neck, armpit, collarbone, and the groin. Each location is designed to drain and filter bacteria in that region. They trap foreign substances and filter them out before they turn into illnesses or infect other areas of the body. They become swollen when they are affected.

Causes of Swollen Lymph Nodes

The node itself is small and rounded and encapsulated in connective tissue. They are made up of lymphocytes and macrophages. The lymphocytes produce a net of protein that captures the bacteria. Macrophages are part of the fluid filtering that travels through the body. The most common cause of swelling of the lymph nodes in your neck is from illnesses such as strep throat, measles, or an ear infection. Rarely, they can indicate immune disorders or cancer.

Symptoms of Swollen Lymph Nodes

If your body is fighting infection, swollen lymph nodes are the first sign that an illness is present. As they enlarge, it's safe to assume there is an infection elsewhere in the body. Most individuals will notice tenderness and pain under the chin or swelling that's about the size of a kidney bean. When this happens, you'll see other symptoms as well such as:

  • A runny nose
  • A sore throat
  • Fever
  • Upper respiratory problems
  • Coughing
  • Exhaustion/feeling rundown
  • Night sweats

The swelling in your lymph nodes should return to normal once the bacteria is out of the body. If your symptoms don't improve after a week with over the counter sinus or flu medication, you'll need to consult your ear, nose, and throat doctor.

Thyroid Nodules

The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ about two inches long located at the base of the neck, right about the breastbone. It's part of the endocrine system and releases hormones that help stabilize your metabolism. The gland produces, stores, and releases hormones T3 and T4 into the bloodstream to help your body create energy. If your T3 or T4 is too high, the heart rate will slow, and you might have constipation or weight gain issues. Too high, and you are dealing with weight loss and a faster heart rate. Thyroid nodules are solid fluid-filled lumps that form inside the thyroid.

Causes of Thyroid Nodules

Several conditions lend themselves to the development of thyroid nodules. There could be a cyst present. When solid components mix with fluid in the thyroid a cyst can form. In most instances these are benign. There could also be thyroid adenoma which is an overgrowth of healthy thyroid tissue. Hashimoto's disease can sometimes cause inflammation or nodules to enlarge.

Symptoms of Thyroid Nodules

Many individuals won't develop signs or symptoms when thyroid nodules develop. However, in some instances, they can enlarge to the point they can be felt or seen at the base of the neck. If they become too big, they can press on the esophagus or windpipe. There are instances where a hormone called thyroxine is produced and can cause hypothyroidism with symptoms such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Rapid heartbeats
  • Tremors
  • Increased sweating

If you noticed swelling on your thyroid, you'd want to seek advice from your ENT. While most nodules are noncancerous, a doctor can help evaluate the swelling and prescribe a course of treatment.


Tonsils are oval-shaped beds of tissue part of the immune system and hang in the back of the throat. They come in contact with bacteria quickly due to their location and alert the body to activate the immune system. They also can trap some germs before they can enter the body. Because they are part of the immune system and the first to come in contact with germs, they can become inflamed leading to conditions such as tonsillitis.

Causes of Tonsillitis

Viruses are usually the cause of the infection that results in tonsilitis. There are chances for it to stem from bacteria. Streptococcus pyogenes is the leading bacterium causing strep throat and the inflammation of the tonsils. It's highly contagious. It can spread through airborne droplets from a cough or sneeze by someone infected or through sharing a drink or food. To avoid the issue, wash your hands before eating and stay away from someone who is currently displaying symptoms of strep throat.

Symptoms of Tonsillitis

If you still have your tonsils, you can get tonsillitis. But, the condition is most present in babies and children with weaker immune systems. Appropriate treatment to reduce the swelling depends on the cause. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Red tonsils
  • White/yellow mucus on the tonsils
  • A sore throat
  • Fever
  • A headache
  • Exhaustion
  • Pain while swallowing

If it becomes too difficult or painful to swallow, and symptoms don't improve after 48 hours, you'll want to seek professional help from a trusted ear, nose, and throat doctor.

To learn more or to get help with any swelling in the neck, contact OAT to set up your appointment today.

Topics: Tonsils, Throat Care, Neck Care