Last reviewed by Dr. Raj MD on January 12th, 2022.
What are cervical lymph nodes?
Cervical lymph nodes are part of you lymphatic system which also includes other organs, tissues, and vessels. Your lymphatic system is what helps to fight infections and regulates your body’s fluid balance. The job of your lymphatic system is to drain excess fluid from the tissues and then return it to the blood that is circulating around in your body. All lymph nodes filter debris like cancer cells, viruses, bacteria, and anything else that should not be circulating throughout the body. Your cervical lymph nodes are a great indicator of an illness, especially when they are swollen. Most of the lymph nodes, including your cervical lymph nodes, are glands that are small and bean-shaped.
This fluid is called lymph and is clear in color. It consists of the proteins that are taken from your blood. This excess fluid will drain out of your lymph capillaries which are thin-walled blood vessels. These types of blood vessels are located in the spaces between the cells throughout your body and are closed at one end. They are also referred to as neck lymph nodes. When your lymph nodes become swollen it is called lymphadenopathy and is more common in children than in adults.
Anatomy of cervical lymph nodes
There are six different groups of lymph nodes that are located in your neck. They are classified according to where they are located in your neck.
The six groups include:
Tonsillar lymph nodes
These are situated just beneath your jaw bone referred to as the mandible and are responsible for draining the posterior, or back, of your pharynx and your tonsils.
Sub-mental lymph nodes
These lymph nodes are located just below your chin. They help to drain your lower lip, tongue, floor of your mouth, cheek, and teeth. If they become swollen it is usually due to dental infections, toxoplasmosis, inflammation, also known as periodontitis, herpes also known as cytomegalovirus, or mononucleosis. These are also referred to as your posterior cervical lymph nodes
Sub-mandibular lymph nodes
These lymph nodes lie along the bottom of your jaw bone. They drain your conjunctiva, lips, tongue, and flour of your mouth. If these lymph nodes become swollen it could be due to infections of your neck, ears, pharynx, eyes, head, and sinuses. These are also referred to as your posterior cervical lymph nodes.
Supraclavicular lymph nodes
These are located in the hollow just about your collar bone, also known as the clavicle. The right lymph nodes drain your lungs, esophagus, and mediastinum. If they become swollen it can be due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung infection or cancer, or gastrointestinal cancer. The left lymph nodes drain your abdomen and chest, also referred to as your thorax. If they become swollen it could because of retroperitoneal or thoracic cancer, an infection that could be fungal or bacterial, breast cancer, or lymphoma. A swollen lymph node on the left could be the first sign of stomach cancer even before any other symptoms of cancer appear. These are also referred to as your posterior cervical lymph nodes.
The other two groups are posterior and anterior cervical lymph nodes that will be discussed later.
Posterior cervical lymph nodes
On your neck
These particular lymph nodes are responsible for filtering and draining your lymphatic fluid from the areas in your neck and head.
Causes of swelling
- On your neck by your jaw also known as your jugular – rubella, also known as German Measles and pharyngitis
- Back of your neck near your skull also known as occipital—this would be a localized infection of your head or scalp.
- Behind your ears known as postauricular – this is a contained infection of your scalp or ears.
- The front of your ears known as preauricular – this is an infection in your eyelids also referred to as the mucus membrane, ear infections, or infection in your temporal region.
- Respiratory infections
Anterior cervical lymph nodes
These particular lymph nodes are located on the lower frontside of the neck. In this area there are two different types which are your deep anterior cervical lymph nodes and your superficial anterior cervical lymph nodes. The anterior cervical lymph nodes are found along your muscles referred to as the sternocleidomastoid muscle that enables you to swivel and flex your head.
These particular cervical lymph nodes are responsible for the drainage of your tonsils, pharynx, and your thyroid gland..
Causes of swelling
Because of their location it is very common for the swelling to be noticed and may be more noticeable when you turn your neck to the right or left.
- Ear infections
- Throat infection
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Recent immunizations
- Having the flu, a cold, or allergies
Cervical Lymph Nodes Diagram
If your physician thinks that the cause of your posterior cervical lymph node swelling is cancer to ensure it is cancer and what type it is the physician will usually request a biopsy to be done. If cancer is found in your lymph node it can change the diagnosis of what stage it is in. Many times when a person has swollen cervical lymph nodes it is hard to diagnose the cause of the swelling. The characteristics of having swollen cervical lymph nodes can also help to diagnose the cause of why they are swollen.
- If the cervical lymph nodes are painful, mobile, and soft with any signs of inflammation on the overlying skin the swelling is usually due to an infection.
- If the cervical lymph nodes are not painful, fixed and not mobile, and hard it is usually due to cancer.
- If the cervical lymph nodes seem to be connected to each other, also referred to as matted lymph nodes, it could be due to a malignancy, tuberculosis, or Sarcoidosis.
If you are also experiencing night sweats, weight loss, running a fever, or feeling fatigued these could also help give a diagnosis as to why they are swollen.
When should you see your physician?
You should make an appointment to see your physician if your lymph nodes are swollen longer than fourteen days, become more swollen, or you are seeing more swollen lymph nodes. If you are experiencing other symptoms like pain, a sore throat, earache, running a fever, weakness, chills, etc you should see your physician to see what the cause is and if treatment is necessary.
Treatment for Cervical Lymph Nodes
If your posterior cervical lymph node is swollen because of cancer it will need to be treated. If the cancer has already spread to your lymph nodes it will change how the cancer will be treated. Usually when you have swollen cervical lymph nodes they will return to normal within fourteen days without any treatment. If you are running a fever or having pain your physician will recommend the standard treatment of taking over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. You may also have to take a prescription medication if you have an immune disorder in order to reduce the swollen cervical lymph node.
You can also apply simultaneously hot and cold compresses to the swollen cervical lymph nodes. To use this treatment you would place one clean washcloth in a bowl of hot water and one in a bowl of cold water. Place the damp hot washcloth on your swollen cervical lymph nodes for ten minutes and then replace it with the cold washcloth for another ten minutes. You should alternate washcloths for at least thirty minutes a few times a day. Another home remedy to help ease the pain and swelling of your cervical lymph nodes is to dissolve a teaspoon of honey in a cup of warm, not hot, tea or water. Drink this a few times during the day and in a few days you will see improvements on your swollen cervical lymph nodes.