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Lymphadenopathy refers to inflammation and swelling of the lymph nodes. The condition can be local, meaning that a single lymph node is affected, or generalized, indicating that two or more nodes are involved. Most cases of lymphadenopathy are the result of bacterial or viral infections, though autoimmune disorders, cancer, and drug reactions can also lead to lymph node problems. The masses and fluids that build up in the lymph nodes as a result of swelling tend to disappear when the underlying cause is identified and treated.
The lymphatic system consists of several lymph nodes and vessels found throughout the body, most prominently in the neck, groin, and underarms. The nodes produce lymphocytes which are specialized white blood cells that are essential in fighting off bacteria and viruses in the body. Lymphadenopathy occurs when the nodes become damaged due to an infection, malignancy, or immune system disorder. The condition is more common in children than it is in adults, as young people frequently encounter pathogens that are novel; their immune systems do not know how to correctly fight them off.
An infected lymph node will tend to become inflamed and grow larger than normal. The skin covering the node turns red and feels tender to the touch. The node is usually soft when the cause is an infection and firm if a malignant tumor is present. Inflammation and swelling usually subside within a few days and do not lead to future health problems. In some cases, however, the node may not be able to produce and release lymphocytes as effectively, which can cause an infection to spread to other parts of the body. Malignancies often continue to grow until they are discovered and treated by medical professionals.
A doctor can diagnose lymphadenopathy by performing a careful physical examination, taking a computerized tomography scan of the affected body part, and collecting a blood sample for laboratory analysis. If the physician suspects a malignancy, she can extract a piece of tissue for a thorough biopsy. After identifying the cause of lymphadenopathy, the doctor can recommend the appropriate treatment.
Oral antibiotics and antiviral drugs are generally effective at relieving symptoms due to infection in one to two weeks. If an infection or autoimmune disorder has caused a lymph node to grow unusually large, a surgeon can aspirate it to remove excess fluid and promote healing. Tumors can usually be removed through surgical procedures, though chemotherapy and radiation treatments may be necessary if a cancer begins to spread to other parts of the body. An accurate diagnosis and early treatment typically are key to ensuring a full recovery.