Lymph nodes are present in virtually every part 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 when disease-causing entities invade the body.
Typically, they are away from view 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.
In this article, we will discuss swollen lymph nodes under the jaw, what causes them to become obvious, and how they are treated.
First, What Are Lymph Nodes?
Lymph nodes are rounded bean-shaped masses of lymphoid tissue. They are a part of the lymphatic system and are tasked with keeping the body safe from infectious diseases. They are distributed along with the lymphatic system which often travels with the blood vessels of the body.
Lymph nodes collect lymph – a pale fluid that contains white blood cells which help to keep the body healthy. They are present in every part of the body at key locations near blood vessels in a part of the body. Lymph nodes act as holding cells for infectious organisms, cancer cells, and damaged cells while special cells of the immune system (called lymphocytes) prepare to respond to these invaders by evicting and destroying them.
The lymphatic system is especially concerned with scavenging fluids and proteins that have escaped from the cells and tissues of the body. It returns them to the blood while removing debris and foreign material from the cells. Lymph nodes may exist singly or be part of a group.
Below the jaw, there are a number of lymph nodes. These nodes are grouped and named according to their location relative to the jaw. They are often away from view with only a trained professional able to identify and pick them out, but they may be seen in some individuals even when they are healthy.
These nodes ensure that the area of the jaw and lower face remains free of infections and diseases, in other words, healthy. They may become swollen due to a number of reasons. Lymph node swelling is called Lymphadenopathy. Sometimes, swollen lymph nodes are relatively harmless and cause no worry. At other times, it may be a cause of worry especially if there are other symptoms and features present. The method of treatment also depends on the cause of the swelling.
Causes Of Swollen Lymph Nodes Under Jaw
Swelling of the lymph nodes under the jaw is mostly due to an infection in the head and neck region. This may be:
- A dental infection affecting the mouth, tongue or gum (e.g. gum disease),
- An ear infection (e.g. otitis media),
- A throat infection (e.g. sore throat), or
- An infection of the upper respiratory tract (e.g. a cold).
Infection of a lymph node is called Lymphadenitis.
Lymph nodes typically enlarge in the presence of infection as a natural response. This is done to enhance the body’s capability to handle bacteria, viruses or fungi that are invading the body. The nodes may also swell in response to a cut or injury close to their location which may have become infected. Viruses and bacteria are especially common causes of infection in these areas which may cause the lymph nodes under your jaw to swell.
Other infections, such as Infectious Mononucleosis, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Tuberculosis may also cause you to have swollen lymph nodes under your jaw. The lymph nodes may increase in size and be palpable, turn red and become painful or fill up with pus.
In the case of an infection, the lymph nodes often enlarge rapidly over a short period and disappear within a few days of resolution of the infection. Infectious causes are more likely to be the reason for a swollen lymph node, especially if you are young and healthy. It is more likely to be an infectious cause if –
- It appears ‘suddenly’
- You have an infection in your throat, ear, mouth and so on
- It is painful when you touch it
- The lymph node moves around freely
- Is present for less than 3 weeks
- Resolves as 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 health care professional.
This is a rare cause of swollen lymph nodesAdvertisements
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.
Before treatment is embarked on, a diagnosis needs to be made. This is particularly important as 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. Therefore, 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 for the purpose of examining it under a microscope in a laboratory.
Treatment is proffered via the administration of medications such as 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
While a lymph node swelling is something to pay attention to, it is often harmless and resolution occurs over a period of two weeks. However, the specific cause of the swelling, as well as other symptoms you may have, determines a lot as regards treatment and outlook.
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