What are the Common Causes of Lymphatic Swelling?

Erin J. Hill

The causes of lymphatic swelling will depend on where in the lymphatic system the swelling is occurring. One of the most common types of lymphatic swelling refers to swollen glands or lymph nodes. This is caused by the accumulation of white blood cells inside of the glands as they attempt to fight off some type of infection. Occasionally lymphatic swelling can be caused by lymphedema, liver disease, or cancer.

A sinus infection may cause lymphatic swelling.
A sinus infection may cause lymphatic swelling.

Most commonly, the swelling is confined to the lymph nodes and it is generally caused by an infection somewhere in the body. In the majority of these cases, the swelling involves the nodes closest to the site of the infection. For instance, a sinus infection may result in swollen nodes in the neck region. This swelling is generally temporary and subsides when the infection is healed, although sometimes a lymph node will remain swollen for several days or even weeks.

Liver disease may cause lymphatic swelling.
Liver disease may cause lymphatic swelling.

Lymph node swelling should not increase over time once the initial infection is over. This could be a sign of lymphoma, which is a type of cancer of the lymph nodes. Swollen lymph nodes in more than one area of the body can also be the result of cancer or sometimes it can signal a widespread infection that should be treated by a medical professional.

Lymph nodes in the head and neck.
Lymph nodes in the head and neck.

Lymphedema can also cause swelling. This is a condition which causes mild to severe swelling or water retention in the arms or legs. It is generally caused by damage to the lymph nodes closest to the affected extremity. Treatment may include wrapping the limb, drainage, and avoiding infection and injury to the area.

Lymph nodes usually become swollen due to bacterial or viral infections.
Lymph nodes usually become swollen due to bacterial or viral infections.

Occasionally lymphatic swelling can be found internally. The liver is part of the lymphatic system and may swell if it is diseased in some way. Potential causes for liver disease can vary widely, so treatments are also varied. Alcoholism, hepatitis, and taking prescription or over the counter drugs can all contribute to liver disease.

Cancer is another potential cause of lymphatic swelling. Malignant cells can occur in virtually any area of the body, and it can sometimes infect the lymph nodes or liver. Lymphoma is the most common type of cancer which affects the lymphatic system. Survival for this type of cancer is probable when it is detect early and treated right away. Warning signs include severe swelling in one or more lymph nodes that does not subside and that is not related to an infection.

Causes of lymphatic swelling will depend on where in the lymphatic system the swelling is occurring.
Causes of lymphatic swelling will depend on where in the lymphatic system the swelling is occurring.

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Discussion Comments


My mother’s lymph nodes were damaged during surgery. Because of this, she has lymphedema, and both of her arms and legs swell up with lymphatic fluid.

She has to wear compression garments to keep the swelling down. These garments look like sleeves and stockings, and they keep pressure on her swollen limbs to push the fluid out.

They are made to be comfortable enough to wear all the time, though she only wears them a few hours each day. She doesn’t like wearing them in public, unless they are under her clothes.


I have a form of lymphedema called Meige’s disease. It’s a genetic condition, and I first found out I had it when I was seventeen and my arm and leg suddenly swelled up.

When my lymph vessels were forming, they didn’t develop those valves which prevent lymph from going in the wrong direction. Because of this, my body has a hard time getting the fluid out of my arm and leg.

I have to wrap bandages around my arm and leg to get the fluid to flow away from them and back to my torso. When I start putting on the bandage, I wrap it around my toes and fingers really tightly. As I go up, I make it looser.


@cloudel - It sounds like you had a sinus infection. You’re fortunate that it went away on its own, because mine never do.

When I get one, I have lots of dried mucus that gets stuck in my nasal passages. I can never blow it all out. It is hard to breathe through my nose, so sleeping is difficult.

Sometimes, it moves into my ears. They itch and ache. Often, once I’ve had it long enough for my ears to become infected, it has moved into my lymph nodes and my neck has swollen. When those glands get puffy and achy, I feel even sicker.

No matter how many times I try to wait it out, I end up having to go get antibiotics. I just hope that my body doesn’t lose all power to fight infection by itself. It sure seems like it needs a lot of help.


I got worried when I had swollen glands in my neck. I had just gotten over one infection, and it seemed to be coming back on me in a different form.

One side of my throat felt like it had a rough, dry spot. The lymph nodes in my neck just below my jawline were puffy and tender to the touch. They felt very sore when I turned my head, and it hurt when I put my fingers on them to check on the progress of the swelling.

I really hated to go back to the doctor so soon, so I just waited. I couldn’t believe it, but the swelling did go away, as did the dry spot in my throat. I guess my body just needed time to fight the infection on its own, so I’m glad I didn’t cave and get antibiotics.

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