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Swollen Glands, Hernias, and Other Lumps Under the Skin

Swollen Glands, Hernias, and Other Lumps Under the Skin

Topic Overview

Most swollen glands or lumps under the skin are not cause for concern. The glands (lymph nodes) on either side of the neck, under the jaw, or behind the ears commonly swell when you have a cold or sore throat.

More serious infections may cause the glands to enlarge and become very firm and tender. Glands can also swell and become tender after an injury, such as a cut or bite, or when a tumor or infection occurs in the mouth, head, or neck.

Swollen glands and other lumps under the skin can be caused by many different things, including illness, infection, or another cause.

Infections

Swollen glands commonly develop when the body fights infections from colds, insect bites, or small cuts. More serious infections may cause the glands to enlarge and become firm, hard, or tender. Examples of such infections include:

Noncancerous (benign) growths

Types of noncancerous (benign) growths, which are usually harmless, include:

  • A lipoma, a smooth, rubbery, dome-shaped lump that is easily movable under the skin.
  • A cyst, a sac of fluid and debris that sometimes hurts.
    • Cystic lesions from acne are large pimples that occur deep under the skin.
    • Branchial cleft cysts are found in the neck and do not usually cause problems unless they become infected. These cysts are most common in teenagers.
    • An epidermal cyst (also called a sebaceous cyst) often appears on the scalp, ears, face, or back.
    • A ganglion is a soft, rubbery lump (a type of cyst) on the front or back of the wrist.
  • Tonsillitis , which may also cause swelling in the neck.
  • A salivary gland problem, such as inflammation, a salivary stone, an infection, or a tumor.
  • An inflammation of fatty tissue under the skin (erythema nodosum) or overgrown scar tissue (keloid).

Hernias, aneurysms, or nodules

Hernias or aneurysms are bulging sections in a muscle or blood vessel. A nodule is usually a growth on a gland. A hernia, aneurysm, or nodule may be felt under the skin but may not be visible. These types of lumps may need more medical evaluation.

  • An inguinal hernia is a soft lump in the groin or near the navel. It may be more visible when you cough. Hernias that disappear when you press on them may not need any treatment. Hernias that don't disappear when you press on them may be more serious and need medical treatment.
  • A bulging section in the wall of a blood vessel (aneurysm) may feel like a pulsating lump in the abdomen, in the groin, or behind the knee. It can cause serious problems if it involves the blood vessels in the brain or the abdomen. Aneurysms may be a medical emergency and may require immediate evaluation.
  • A thyroid nodule is an abnormal growth on the thyroid gland. An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) is in the neck just below the Adam's apple.

Swelling caused by cancer

A lump caused by cancer is usually hard, irregularly shaped, and firmly fixed under the skin or deep in tissue. Although they usually do not cause pain, some types of cancerous lumps are painful. Most lumps are not caused by cancer.

Other causes

Swelling may also be caused by:

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Are you concerned about swollen glands or other lumps under the skin?
Yes
Concern about swollen glands or lumps under skin
No
Concern about swollen glands or lumps under skin
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Can you feel a lump in the neck or throat?
Yes
Lump in throat or neck
No
Lump in throat or neck
Did the lump develop quickly (over hours)?
Yes
Lump in neck or throat developed quickly
No
Lump in neck or throat developed quickly
Are you having trouble breathing (more than a stuffy nose)?
Yes
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
No
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
Are you having trouble swallowing?
Yes
Trouble swallowing
No
Trouble swallowing
Can you swallow food or fluids at all?
Yes
Able to swallow food or fluids
No
Unable to swallow food or fluids
Is your voice hoarse for no clear reason?
Yes
Unexplained hoarseness
No
Unexplained hoarseness
Do you have any symptoms of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism?
The thyroid gland sits in your neck in front of your windpipe. It can become swollen if it's not working properly.
Yes
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism
No
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Do you think you may have a fever?
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Does the lump hurt?
Yes
Lump is painful
No
Lump is painful
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Has the pain lasted for more than 3 days?
Yes
Pain for more than 3 days
No
Pain for more than 3 days
Is it a soft lump near the belly button, the groin, or the site of a past surgery?
This type of lump could be a hernia.
Yes
Soft lump near belly button, groin, or surgical site
No
Soft lump near belly button, groin, or surgical site
Does the pain go away when you press on the lump?
Yes
Pain goes away when lump is pressed
No
Pain goes away when lump is pressed
Have you had the lump or swollen gland for more than 2 weeks?
Yes
Swollen gland or lump for more than 2 weeks
No
Swollen gland or lump for more than 2 weeks

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:

  • You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
  • It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you’re at rest (severe difficulty breathing).

A soft lump in one of these areas (belly button, groin, past surgical site) may be a hernia. A hernia can occur when there is a weakening in the muscle wall and part of an internal organ (often part of the bowel) pushes through.

With a hernia, the lump may go away when you press on it or lie down, and it may get worse when you cough. It may or may not be painful.

Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone.

Symptoms of hypothyroidism may include:

  • Tiredness and weakness.
  • Weight gain.
  • Depression.
  • Memory problems.
  • Constipation.
  • Dry skin, brittle nails, and coarse, thinning hair.
  • Not being able to tolerate cold temperatures.

Hyperthyroidism occurs when your body has too much thyroid hormone.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism may include:

  • Tiredness.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Weight loss.
  • Sweating and not being able to tolerate hot temperatures.
  • Fast heart rate.
  • Feeling edgy or anxious.
  • Enlarged thyroid gland (your thyroid gland is in your neck).

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Home Treatment

The following home treatment measures may help you treat a painful lump or swollen gland.

  • Avoid irritation and prevent infection.
    • Do not squeeze, scratch, or pick at the lump. Do not stick a needle in it.
    • Leave the lump exposed to the air whenever possible.
    • Adjust your clothing to avoid rubbing the lump.
  • Apply warm, wet cloths to the painful lump for 20 to 30 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day. If you prefer, you can also use a hot water bottle over a damp towel. The heat and moisture can soothe the lump, increase blood circulation to the area, and speed healing. It can also bring a lump caused by infection to a head (but it may take 5 to 7 days). Be careful not to burn your skin. Do not use water that is warmer than bathwater.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • A lump or swollen gland gets worse or does not go away after 2 weeks of home treatment.
  • A skin infection develops.
  • Symptoms become more severe or frequent.
  • New symptoms develop.

Prevention

Wash your hands frequently during cold and cough season. This may help prevent some upper respiratory infections that cause glands to swell.

Measures to decrease your risk of infection

  • Keep your skin clean.
    • Wash with lukewarm water and a mild soap or cleanser. Do not use soaps and skin cleansers that contain irritating substances.
    • Rinse your skin thoroughly after you wash it, and gently pat it dry.
    • Wash soon after participating in activities that cause you to sweat.
  • Do not use skin care products that contain oil, because they may clog your pores. Instead, use water-based skin care products. Read the labels on products, and look for the terms oil-free or hypoallergenic.
  • Do not squeeze, scratch, drain, or puncture a painful lump. Doing this can irritate or inflame the lump, push any existing infection deeper into the skin, or cause severe bleeding.
  • Prevent irritation by wearing soft, cotton clothing or moleskin under sports equipment (if possible). Parts of equipment (such as chin straps) can rub your skin and irritate it. Adjust your clothing so that belts and straps or elastic from bras or underwear do not rub against your skin.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • When did you first notice the lump or swollen gland?
  • Has the lump changed? Has it gotten bigger or smaller? Has the color of the lump changed?
  • Have you had any recent illness or injury?
  • Have you had a similar problem in the past in the same area or a different area?
    • Were your symptoms evaluated?
    • Was there a diagnosis?
    • How was it treated?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines have you taken or used? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Current as of July 24, 2013

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