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Swollen Lymph Nodes and Lymphadenopathy

Most cases of lymphadenopathy are the result of a benign infectious causes, such as in the child who presents with a sore throat, tender cervical nodes and a positive rapid strep test. In other cases, the diagnosis is less clear. Lymphadenopathy may be the only clinical finding or one of several nonspecific findings, and the discovery of swollen lymph nodes will often raise the specter of serious illness such as lymphoma, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or metastatic cancer lymphadenopathy, swollen nodes, swollen glands, neck lump


The body has approximately 600 lymph nodes, but only those in the submandibular, axillary or inguinal regions may normally be palpable in healthy people.1 Lymphadenopathy refers to nodes that are abnormal in either size, consistency or number. There are various classifications of lymphadenopathy, but a simple and clinically useful system is to classify lymphadenopathy as "generalized" if lymph nodes are enlarged in two or


Our understanding of the epidemiology of lymphadenopathy in family practice is limited by the scarcity of relevant literature. Only one study4 provides reliable population-based estimates. Findings from this Dutch study revealed a

Diagnostic Approach to Lymphadenopathy

The algorithm in Figure 2 provides a diagnostic framework for the evaluation of lymphadenopathy. The algorithm emphasizes that a careful history and physical examination are the

The physician should consider four key points when compiling a patient's history.1 First, are there localizing symptoms or signs to suggest infection or neoplasm in a specific site? Second, are there constitutional symptoms such as fever, weight loss, fatigue or night sweats to suggest disorders such as tuberculosis, lymphoma, collagen vascular diseases, unrecognized infection or malignancy?

Physical Examination
When lymphadenopathy is localized, the clinician should examine the region drained by the nodes for evidence of infection, skin lesions or tumors (Table 3). Other nodal sites should also be carefully examined to exclude the possibility of generalized rather than localized lymphadenopathy. This is

Laboratory tests that may be useful in confirming the cause of lymphadenopathy are listed in Table 4. The presence of certain characteristic clinical syndromes may help the physician determine a suspected cause of lymphadenopathy.

Mononucleosis-Type Syndromes
Patients with these syndromes present with lymphadenopathy, fatigue, malaise, fever and an increased atypical lymphocyte count. Mononucleosis is most commonly due to Epstein-Barr virus infection. The presence of the typical syndrome and positive results on a heterophilic antibody test (Monospot test) confirms the diagnosis. The most common cause of heterophil-negative

If Epstein-Barr virus antibodies are absent, other causes of the mononucleosis syndrome should be considered. These include toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus infection, streptococcal pharyngitis, hepatitis B infection and acute human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Acute infections with cytomegalovirus and Toxoplasma may be identified with IgM serology for those organisms.

Ulceroglandular Syndrome
This syndrome is defined by the presence of a skin lesion with associated regional lymphadenopathy. The classic cause is tularemia, acquired by contact with an infected rabbit or tick; more common causes include streptococcal infection (e.g., impetigo), cat-scratch disease and Lyme disease.

Oculoglandular Syndrome
This syndrome involves the combination of conjunctivitis and associated preauricular nodes. Common causes include viral keratoconjunctivitis and cat-scratch disease resulting from an ocular lesion.

HIV Infection
Enlargement of the lymph nodes that persists for at least three months in at least two extrainguinal sites is defined as persistent generalized lymphadenopathy and is common in patients in the early stages of HIV infection. Other causes of generalized

Unexplained Lymphadenopathy

When, after the initial evaluation and after exploration of the "diagnostic" and "suggestive" branches of the algorithm (Figure 2), a

Generalized Lymphadenopathy
Because generalized lymphadenopathy almost always indicates that a significant systemic disease is present, the clinician should consider the diseases listed in Table 4 and proceed with specific testing as indicated. If a diagnosis cannot be made, the clinician should obtain a biopsy of the node. The diagnostic yield of the biopsy can be maximized by obtaining an excisional biopsy of the largest and most abnormal node (which is not necessarily the most accessible node). If possible, the physician should not select inguinal and axillary nodes for biopsy, since they frequently show only reactive hyperplasia.

Localized Lymphadenopathy
If the lymphadenopathy is localized, the decision about when to biopsy is more difficult. Patients with a benign clinical history, an unremarkable physical examination and no constitutional symptoms should be reexamined in three to four weeks to see if the