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Lymphadenopathy

Last updated: May 5, 2021

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Lymphadenopathy is the enlargement of lymph nodes and most commonly occurs during benign, inflammatory processes. In pediatric patients, lymphadenopathy is usually caused by upper respiratory tract infections (see unilateral cervical lymphadenopathy). Painful, enlarged lymph nodes in adults, paired with signs of localized or systemic infection, are generally caused by some type of bacterial or viral infection. Malignancy must be considered in the case of painless, progressive lymph node swelling in the absence of signs of infection, in which case further diagnostic testing (e.g., serology, imaging, biopsy, and histological analysis) is necessary in order to make the diagnosis.

To remember the different causes of lymphadenopathy, think “MIAMI”: Malignancy (e.g., lymphomas), Infection (e.g., TB), Autoimmune disease (e.g., SLE), Miscellaneous (e.g., sarcoidosis), and Iatrogenic (medications).

References:[2]

Medical history

Physical examination

  • General: assess for both local inflammatory processes (e.g., enlarged neck lymph nodes due to tonsillitis) and signs of systemic disease (e.g., hepatomegaly and splenomegaly)
  • Peripheral lymph node examination:
    • Inspection
      • Visible enlargement: Lymph nodes should not be visible in healthy individuals, as they are only a few millimeters in diameter.
      • Local erythema, swelling, or lesion
    • Palpation

Characteristics Likely benign or inflammatory cause Likely malignant or mycobacterial cause
Pain

Tender

Non-tender

Consistency

Soft

Hard

Fixation

Mobile

Fixed

Location

Cervical (anterior to the sternocleidomastoid muscle), inguinal

Cervical (dorsal to the sternocleidomastoid muscle), supraclavicular

Progression

Acute enlargement without long-term progression

Slow development combined with progressive enlargement

Soft, mobile, and tender lymph nodes are likely benign. Hard, nonmobile, nontender lymph nodes should raise concern for malignancy. Firm, nontender lymph nodes in patients with sarcoidosis or tuberculosis are exceptions.A palpable, firm lymph node in the left supraclavicular area is called a Virchow node and is classically associated with gastric carcinoma.

Further diagnostic testing

References:[2][3][4]

Differential diagnoses according to characteristics of enlarged lymph nodes [1]

Painful Painless

Localized lymphadenopathy

Generalized lymphadenopathy (enlargement of ≥ 2 noncontiguous lymph node groups)

Generalized lymphadenopathy is defined as the enlargement of more than two noncontiguous lymph node groups.

Differential diagnoses according to location of enlarged lymph nodes

See lymph node clusters in article on lymphatic system.

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

  1. Gaddey HL, Riegel AM. Unexplained Lymphadenopathy: Evaluation and Differential Diagnosis. Am Fam Physician. 2016; 94 (11): p.896-903.
  2. Kanwar VS. Lymphadenopathy. Lymphadenopathy. New York, NY: WebMD. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/956340-overview#showall. Updated: February 14, 2017. Accessed: March 27, 2017.
  3. Physical Examinations II. Lymph Node Exam. https://www.jove.com/science-education/10061/lymph-node-exam. Updated: January 1, 2018. Accessed: July 5, 2018.
  4. Lymphadenopathy. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/cardiovascular-disorders/lymphatic-disorders/lymphadenopathy. Updated: January 1, 2019. Accessed: May 14, 2019.
  5. Ferrer R. Lymphadenopathy: differential diagnosis and evaluation.. Am Fam Physician. 1998; 58 (6): p.1313-20.
  6. Lucey BC, Stuhlfaut JW, Soto JA. Mesenteric lymph nodes seen at imaging: causes and significance. Radiographics. 2005; 25 (2): p.351-365. doi: 10.1148/rg.252045108 . | Open in Read by QxMD