Swollen throat glands represent enlargement of the lymph nodes in the neck. Lymph nodes are bean-like collections of lymphocytes--white blood cells with a prominent role in the immune system. Infections and inflammation commonly causes swollen lymph nodes in the throat. Less commonly, cancerous growth within the lymph nodes provokes the enlargement. Effective treatment of the underlying cause often leads to resolution of lymph node swelling.
Swollen throat glands are often caused by infection. Strep throat is a common infection of the throat tissues caused by group A streptococcal bacteria. Common symptoms of strep throat include fever, headache, sore throat, and tender, swollen glands in the neck. School-age children most frequently contract strep throat, although the infection may occur in any age group. The incidence of strep throat peaks during the winter months and ebbs during the summer.
Infection can also be caused by mononucleosis -- also called the kissing disease. In addition to swollen glands, this infection causes fatigue that may last for months. Swollen throat glands can also be caused by mouth infections or a skin injury in the throat area that becomes infected.
The tonsils constitute part of the immune system. These paired collections of immune cells reside in the back of the throat. Inflammation of the tonsils constitutes tonsillitis, which may be acute or chronic. A variety of viruses and bacteria can cause tonsillitis including adenovirus, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, herpes simplex virus and group A streptococcus. Viruses cause 70 to 85 percent of tonsillitis cases. Signs and symptoms of tonsillitis include fever, tonsillar enlargement, painful swallowing, a raspy voice, malodorous breath and tender, swollen neck lymph nodes. Lymph node enlargement resolves once tonsillitis clears.
Lymphoma and Leukemia
Lymphoma and leukemia represent two types of cancer involving the lymphocytes. Acute and chronic lymphocytic leukemias arise from cancerous cells in the bone marrow. Lymphomas originate from cancerous cells in the lymph nodes or other lymphatic tissues in the body. Both leukemias and lymphomas commonly cause swollen lymph glands, including those in the neck. Unlike the lymph node swelling associated with strep throat and tonsillitis, the swelling associated with leukemia and lymphoma is typically painless and may affect lymph nodes throughout the body.
The lymphatic system provides a common route for cancerous spread, also known as metastasis. As cancerous cells from tumors travel through the lymphatic circulation, they often inhabit the lymph nodes. Uncontrolled growth of cancer cells within the lymph nodes causes painless swelling. Cancers which commonly spread to the lymph nodes of the neck include those of the larynx, throat, mouth, lung and breast. Metastatic spread to the lymph nodes signifies cancer progression. With breast and lung cancer, spread to the lymph nodes of the neck indicates advanced stage disease.