Swollen Lymph Nodes Under Jaw: Causes and Treatment

Lymph nodes are present in many parts of the body. They are more prominent in some areas than others. As part of the immune system, they keep our bodies healthy and safe from disease-causing organisms.

Normally, they are not easily noticeable and only a trained professional may find them.

However, they become swollen and more conspicuous during active infection or disease, sometimes obvious to yourself and everyone else. An inflammation of a lymph node is called lymphadenitis.

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What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes Under The Jaw?

Infections

Swollen nodes under the jaw are mostly due to an infection in the head and neck region. This may be:

  • A dental infection affecting the mouth, tongue or gum
  • An ear infection
  • A throat infection
  • An infection of the upper respiratory tract

The lymph nodes may increase in size and be noticeable, turn red and become painful.

In an infection, these nodes often enlarge rapidly over a short period and disappear within a few days after the infection is treated. Here are the characteristics of infection-caused lymphadenitis.

  • It appears ‘suddenly’
  • You have an infection in your throat, ear or mouth
  • It is painful when you touch it
  • The lymph node moves around freely
  • Is present for less than 3 weeks
  • Resolves when the infection is cleared

Persistent lymph nodes, especially when painless and accompanied by persistent fever and weight loss, are less likely to be caused by infections and must be assessed by a doctor.

Cancer

This is a rare cause of swollen lymph nodes

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Lymph nodes may swell in response to the development or proliferation of cancer. They are a common location for cancer cells to spread to and cancers may arise from these cells.  A small percentage of lymph node swelling under the jaw are a sign of cancer.

Cancers arising from lymph nodes are called Lymphomas. Cancers spreading from other parts of the body are said to have metastasized. Here, a cancer cell breaks away from the original site and travels to a nearby or distant site before getting picked up by the lymphatic system.

Cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma are common cancer causes of swelling in the lymph nodes under the jaw. Blood cancer (called leukemia) may also cause lymph nodes under the jaw to swell.

Diagnosis

Before treatment is embarked on, a diagnosis needs to be made. This is particularly important because the treatment modality varies for different causes.

For example, swollen lymph nodes caused by a viral infection rarely require any treatment as it will resolve when the infection is gone.

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Your healthcare professional will ask you questions about the swollen lymph nodes under your jaw.

These questions will revolve around:

  • When you first noticed them
  • If they are painful
  • If they have changed in size or shape
  • If you were in contact with animals or suffered cuts near your face area
  • Other symptoms you may have, such as fever and weight loss

Thereafter, your doctor will examine you and focus on your jaw.

Specific investigations such as a blood test, imaging tests such as a Computed Tomography Scan (CT scan) and an ultrasound scan may be requested to help make a diagnosis.

Sometimes, a biopsy may be required. This involves taking a part or whole of a lymph node and examining it under a microscope in a laboratory.

Treatment

Treatment can be by antibiotics in the case of an infection (if it is suspected to have been caused by bacteria), or anticancer agents if the cause is cancer.

If you or your loved one has a lymph node which has any of the following features, you should see your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Painless persistent lymph node
  • Rapidly growing lymph node
  • Skin changes around the area of lymph node
  • High-grade fever (above 101 degrees Fahrenheit or 38.33 degree Celsius)
  • Weight loss
  • If you have night sweats
  • Fatigue, loss of appetite and lethargy
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
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