Last updated: March 9, 2020
Richard Honaker M.D.
Primary Care Physician
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While lumps and bumps around your jawline may cause you to panic, the good news is they are often harmless. To learn the difference between a simple swelling and cause for concern check out everything you need to know about swollen lymph nodes under the jaw.
Your body has many complex systems that work together to keep you healthy and your body working properly. One of these is your lymphatic system.
You may notice that when you visit your local doctor with cold or flu symptoms they will often run their hands along your neck, throat and jaw. This is because the doctor is checking for an important symptom of infection: swollen lymph nodes.
Lymph nodes are an important part of a larger system that works to keep your body healthy. A swollen lymph node is often a sign of an infection, injury or illness. A swollen lymph node can be an indication of something as mild as a cold or as serious as metastasized cancer.
How Does the Lymphatic System Work?
Your lymphatic system is a complex combination of lymph vessels and lymph nodes that work together to remove fluid, waste material, viruses and bacteria from the body.
Lymph vessels are similar to the veins that run throughout your body and they carry a clear fluid called lymph fluid. This fluid is collected in the lymph vessels after it flows from your body’s capillary walls to bathe the cell walls in fluid.
The lymph vessels form a large interconnected pathway to direct the fluid away from the cells and towards the chest. The fluid is collected, filtered and then finally drained into a vessel in the chest to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
The lymph fluid plays an important role in the body. It both removes impurities and carries nutrients. Some of the impurities removed include bacteria and carbon dioxide. The nutrients include oxygen and infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes.
There are two main types of lymphocytes:
- B lymphocytes (B cells): These cells benefit the body by making antibodies to help protect the body from bacteria and viruses.
- T lymphocytes (T cells): Some of these cells destroy germs or abnormal cells and others boost the activity of other immune cells.
Lymph nodes are part of the body’s lymphatic system which works to help filter out impurities that are in the body’s muscle tissue, outside of the blood stream. They are small ovals of lymphatic tissue that are found at intervals along the lymphatic vessels. The lymph nodes are found along the lymphatic vessels similar to beads on a string.
Lymph nodes play one of the most important roles in the lymphatic system. They act as a sieve to filter out impurities in the lymph fluid as it passes along the lymph vessels. Lymph fluid will often filter through several nodes before reaching its final destination.
There are approximately 600 lymph nodes in the body. Some lymph nodes are located deep within the body, while others are relatively close to the surface to the skin.
It is important for the lymph fluid to be filtered through the nodes because they contain immune cells that help the body to fight and break down infection by destroying germs in the lymph fluid. The fluid travels through the body slowly as it collects more and more fluid and is filtered through several nodes towards the chest.
Swollen Lymph Nodes Under the Jaw
In some cases, nodes will swell and can be felt under your skin’s surface.In their normal state nodes are not able to be felt. When lymph nodes detect a problem with the lymph fluid, they react and swell. These problems can include infection, illness, cancer or as a response to injury.
When swollen, lymph nodes can swell from the size of a pea to the size of a cherry.
Lymph nodes can also swell under the jaw. In most instances, nodes swell due to an infection, injury or illness. Often a swollen node is an indication of an infection in the area. A swollen node under the jaw can indicate an upper respiratory infection, cold or flu.
Swollen lymph nodes under the jaw may feel tender to the touch and can even cause difficulty swallowing or moving your head in certain directions. In general, lymph nodes more than 1 cm in diameter are considered to be ‘abnormal’.
Swollen lymph nodes are not always a sign of a problem with your physical health. They are also known to swell due to stress.
The swelling of one or more lymph nodes is called Lymphadenitis. As lymph nodes detect unwanted impurities in the lymph fluid groups of nodes will work together to rid the body of the unwanted item.
Although finding a swollen lymph node can make you fear the worst, often they are just the result of a benign infection. Infection that spread to the lymph nodes are usually caused by bacteria, fungus or an infection.
Swollen lymph nodes are usually a sign that your body is working hard to rid itself of a virus, bacteria or fungus. It is rare that it is the sign of something more serious.
Reasons for Swollen Lymph Nodes Under the Jaw
- Ear infection
- Sinus infection
- ear infection
- Infected tooth
- Skin infection
- Strep throat
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- HIV infection
- Cancer such as lymphoma (where the cancer began in the lymphatic system) or if cancer that originated in other areas moves to the lymphatic system the nodes will swell.
- Anti-seizure and antimalarial drugs
- Medication or allergic reactions to medication
- Cat scratch fever
- Mouth sores
- Sézary syndrome
When more than one area of lymph nodes becomes swollen it is called generalized lymphadenopathy.
Generalized lymphadenopathy can be caused by:
- Strep throat
- Chicken Pox
- Certain medications
- Immune system diseases
- Cancer such as leukemia and lymphoma
Infected Lymph Nodes
While lymph nodes often swell as a result of an infection in their general area, it is also possible for the lymph node itself to become infection. Infected lymph nodes will swell and also produce additional symptoms.
Read more: Swollen lymph nodes behind the ear
Symptoms of Infected Lymph Nodes Under the Jaw:
- Lymph nodes are swollen
- The infected area is tender
- Nodes may be soft or matted together
- Red skin in the infected area
- Nodes may become filled with pus
- Fluid may drain from the nodes onto the skin
Cancer in the Lymph Nodes
While not as common, swollen lymph nodes can be a result of a cancerous tumor. This can happen when cancer develops in another area of the body and spreads to the lymph nodes or when cancer originates in the lymph nodes. When cancer first forms in the lymph nodes it is called Lymphoma. It is more common for cancer to first develop in another area of the body and then spread to the lymph nodes.
This happens when cancer cells break down from a tumor and then travel through the lymphatic vessels via the lymphatic fluid. If they are not broken down in the nodes, they may begin to form a new tumor.
When cancer travels through the lymphatic system it affects the lymph nodes. In most cases, when cancer cells break away from the tumor they are able to be broken down by the body. When cancer spreads to a new part of the body it is referred to as metastasis.
Diagnosis of Swollen Lymph Nodes Under the Jaw
In most cases your doctor will diagnose when is causing your swollen lymph nodes based on the other symptoms you are experiencing. For example, swollen lymph nodes under the jaw accompanied by difficulty swallowing and inflammation in the throat may point to strep throat.
It is when the lymph nodes are swollen without any other symptoms that the diagnosis is much more difficult.
Your doctor will likely ask you about your medical history in addition to a physical exam in order to make a diagnosis. You may also need to disclose about any recent travel or animal encounters that could have led to your condition.
In some cases your doctor may order a blood test to look for abnormalities. They may also do an imaging test such as an MRI, CT scan, x-ray or ultrasound.
Although rare, it is possible that a lymph node biopsy is required. This test only requires a small amount of cells to be removed from the lymph mode with a needle. This test can look for cancer.
Other Possible Diagnosis for Bumps Under the Jaw
Read more: Swollen Lymph Nodes on the Neck
While swollen lymph nodes are a common reaction to many minor illnesses in the body, they are not the only reason for lumps and bumps under the jaw.
Acne: Although common on the face, acne can also occur under the jaw. Acne is formed when pores become blocked with sebum, which is the oily substance secreted at the base of the hair follicle. This results in the pores becoming swollen, red and painful to the touch.
Cyst: A cyst is a fluid-filled sac that can form anywhere on the body including under the jaw. A cyst will form a raised dome-like shape that is filled with fluid. Cysts are often able to be moved under the skin and may have a small dark dot on the top. Any lump found on the skin should be checked by a doctor.
Lipoma: Unlike a cyst or pimple which is often filled with fluid, lipomas are actually a growth of fatty tissue. They can form anywhere on the body including along the scalp. These growths are not cancerous and do not spread. Unlike swollen lymph nodes, these are not painful to the touch. Lipoma are growths of fatty tissue under the skin. The size of lipomas range from the size of a pea to several inches across. You may only have one lipoma or several at once.
How to Check Your Lymph Nodes Under the Jaw
In general there is no reason to check for swollen lymph nodes. Doing this without the direction of your doctor could result in unnecessary stress at any small lump or bump.
There are some circumstances where your doctor may ask you to check your lymph nodes periodically. This is often true in cases where you have been diagnosed with skin cancer. This is because one of the reasons lymph nodes will swell is because they have cancer cells in them.
- Start at the lymph nodes in front of the ear (1). Use your fingertips to feel the area in a gentle circular motion
- Check your nodes in the order shown in the image above. Always start with the front of the ear and finish just above the collar bone.
- Check both sides of the body to compare for size. A swelling may only be the size of a pea.
- When checking your neck, tilting your head towards the side you are examining can help relax the muscle.
- Press your fingers under the muscle to look for swelling
- When checking above the collarbone first hunch your shoulder and bring your elbows forward to relax your skin.
Treatment of Swollen Lymph Nodes Under the Jaw
In order to treat a swollen lymph node you need to treat the cause. Most swollen lymph nodes will resolve themselves once the initial reason for the swelling is treated.
In the case of a viral infection, the nodes will swell once the body has naturally fought the infection off.Your doctor may advise that you take over the counter pain medication to combat the inflammation.
For a bacterial or fungal infection the body will need antibiotics for the infection to resolve.
In some cases an injury is causing the lymph node to swell. Scar tissue or other injuries can cause the node to drain improperly and swell. This may require further surgery to repair.
Swollen lymph nodes caused by cancer will not shrink until the cancer has been completely treated. In some cases, your doctor may advise the lymph node be removed. Your doctor will determine the best treatment options for you.
Speak to a Doctor
In most cases, swollen lymph nodes under the jaw or elsewhere in the body are not cause for concern. Instead of worrying yourself sick, why not connect with one of our doctors 24 hours a day? Cure your worry from the comforts of home with our team of North American doctors ready to help you whenever you need us. Connect today.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or medical condition. If you require specific advice, please consult one of our medical professionals through the app. However, in case of an emergency, please call 911.
About Richard Honaker M.D.
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