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Swollen Lymph Nodes and HIV


Updated May 16, 2014

One of the more common symptoms associated with HIV is lymphadenopathy, a swelling of the lymph nodes of the arm pits (axilla), groins, neck, chest, and abdomen. While most times this swelling is often just a result of HIV, there are serious conditions that are associated with enlarged lymph nodes. Let’s get the facts about lymphadenopathy.

What are Lymph Nodes?

Lymph nodes are small, bean-sized organs of the immune system, distributed widely throughout the body. Lymph fluid, the fluid that collects foreign substances throughout the body, is filtered through the lymph nodes where the immune system can rid those foreign substances from the body.

What Causes Lymphadenopathy?

As lymphatic fluid passes through the lymph nodes, immune system cells and fluid remain, causing the lymph nodes to swell, often times to many times their size. There are several reasons that cause this swelling.
  • A Local Infection
    Often times, the site of lymph node swelling can pinpoint the location of the infection that is causing it. For instance, a throat infection may cause lymph node swelling in the neck. Other infections, such as viral illnesses can cause generalized swelling of lymph nodes all over the body, such as the case in HIV infections.

  • A Lymph Node Infection
    Sometimes the lymph nodes can themselves become inflamed and infected. This type of infection is called lymphadenitis and can cause a painful swelling of the lymph nodes.

  • Lymphoma
    Cancer can invade the lymphatic system and immune system and cause a condition known as lymphoma which can cause a non-tender swelling of the lymph nodes. There are two types of lymphoma, Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s.

What are the Symptoms of Lymphadenopathy?

Obviously swollen lymph nodes is one symptoms of lymphadenopathy. There are other symptoms as well.
  • swollen, enlarged lumps in the neck, back of the head, or other locations of lymph nodes

  • tenderness of the nodes, although the nodes may not be painful at all

  • warmth or redness of the skin over the lymph nodes

  • fever

  • history of infection or illness

Is There a Treatment for Lymphadenopathy?

Once swollen lymph nodes are identified, is there a treatment for the condition? First, the cause of the swelling has to be identified. Is there a viral illness? Is there an infection of the lymph nodes themselves? Does the patient have lymphoma? Once the cause is determined, treatment of the cause will usually result in a resolution of the lymphadenopathy. These can include:
  • antibiotics to treat any bacterial infections

  • antivirals to treat any viral illness present such as HIV

  • a lymph node biopsy made be needed to identify cancer. If cancer is diagnosed, chemotherapy will be used to treat the cancer and reduce the lymph node swelling.

  • depending on the cause, sometimes the lymphadenopathy is monitored without treatment and eventually resolves on it’s own.

If you have found what you think may be swollen lymph nodes under your arms or groins or in your chest, abdomen, or neck, notify your doctor immediately so the cause can be determined and treated.

Source: Adapted from patient education material provided by the University of Virginia Health System; 2006.

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