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When Your Child Has Swollen Lymph Nodes 

Outline of child showing lymph nodes in front of and behind ear, on side and back of neck, under chin, in armpits, and in groin.
Lymph nodes are located throughout the body. Some lymph nodes can be felt from outside the body (shaded areas).

Lymph nodes help the body’s immune system fight infection. These nodes are found all over the body. Lymph nodes can swell due to illness or infection. They can also swell for unknown reasons. In most cases, swollen lymph nodes (also called swollen glands) aren’t a serious problem. They often go back to their original size with no treatment or when the illness or infection has passed. 

What causes swollen lymph nodes?

Swollen lymph nodes can be caused by:

  • Common illnesses, such as a cold or an ear infection

  • Bacterial infections, such as strep throat

  • Viral infections, such as mononucleosis

  • Certain rare illnesses that affect the immune system

  • In rare cases, cancer

How is the cause of swollen lymph nodes diagnosed?

  • The healthcare provider asks about your child’s symptoms and health history.

  • A physical exam is done on your child. The provider will check the nodes in the neck, behind the ears, under the arms, and in the groin. These nodes can often be felt from outside the body when they are swollen. If the provider thinks you child may have an infection your child may have more tests.

How are swollen lymph nodes treated?

  • Treatment for swollen lymph nodes depends on the underlying cause. In most cases, no treatment is needed.

  • Medicine can be prescribed by the healthcare provider to treat an infection. Your child should take all of the medicine, even if he or she starts feeling better.

  • If lymph nodes are painful or tender, do the following at home to ease your child’s symptoms: 

    • Give your child over-the-counter medicine, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to treat pain and fever. Don't give ibuprofen to an infant age 6 months or younger. Don’t give aspirin (or medicine that contains aspirin) to a child younger than age 19 unless directed by your child’s provider. Taking aspirin can put your child at risk for Reye syndrome. This is a rare but very serious disorder. It most often affects the brain and the liver.

    • Put a warm, wet cloth (compress) on any painful or sore lymph nodes.

Call the healthcare provider

Call the healthcare provider if your child has any of the following:

  • Fever (see "Fever and children" below)

  • Your child has had a seizure caused by the fever

  • Painful or sore, swollen lymph nodes 

  • Lymph nodes that continue to grow in size or last more than 2 weeks

  • A large lymph node that is very hard or doesn't seem to move under your fingers

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds of digital thermometers. They include ones for the mouth, ear, forehead (temporal), rectum, or armpit. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Use a rectal thermometer with care. It may accidentally poke a hole in the rectum. It may pass on germs from the stool. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, use another type. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child.

A baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

A child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older

Online Medical Reviewer: Heather Trevino
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Pat F Bass MD MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2019
© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.