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Lymph glands or lymph nodes are the most important components of the immune system, producing and storing immune cells and lymphocytes. These glands are spread throughout the body, with some concentration in certain special areas.

Mostly they are concentrated in the neck, under the arms, and in the groins. Inside the chest and inside the abdomen and pelvis, highly important lymph glands are concentrated. These nodes are the primary barriers to the spread of illnesses. Some of these illnesses may be serious, such as infections and cancers.

Most commonly, when a disease spreads to a lymph gland, it causes a reaction and enlargement of the gland, which indicates a problem. Once the infection spreads to these glands, the reaction and enlargement is rather rapid. It happens in a few days and is accompanied by pain.
A painful gland normally indicates infection, but when cancers spread to these glands, the reaction is gradual and normally pain-free. Once suspected of harboring cancer, the lymph node must be sent for a biopsy and evaluated by a pathologist.

The first step in biopsy of abnormal and enlarged lymph nodes is to perform a fine needle aspiration.  If the result of this is inconclusive, the lymph node must be removed surgically and properly studied. Core biopsies of lymph nodes may also provide additional information, avoiding common surgical biopsy. Sentinel node sampling and biopsy may identify the first-draining lymph node in melanoma and breast cancer.

It is also possible in other cancers. Sampling of this node is thought to be indicative of spreading tumor to regional nodes. If this node does not harbor any cancer cells, the odds are that the cancer has not spread to other lymph glands.

What causes swollen lymph glands?

During our lives most of us have already experienced swollen glands. Often, when glands swell, they become enlarged and even painful to the touch or during movement. The real question is, what causes glands to swell? To understand this, we have to know where our glands are and what they do for our bodies.

Lymph glands are a part of the body’s lymphatic system. The lymphatic system and lymph glands is complex network of vessels, nodes and organs. The lymphatic system helps to maintain the fluid environment, filtering, transporting, and producing the liquid called lymph. The lymphatic system is spread out throughout the entire body, just as the blood system is. Some of the more common areas of the body where the lymph nodes can actually be palpated or felt include the neck, the armpits, and the groin area.

The lymph nodes of our lymphatic system are very important to us and our health, playing an important part in the body’s defense against infections. Swelling of the lymph nodes may occur even if the infection is minor, or if it’s not apparent yet in other parts of the body. Swelling of the lymph nodes generally results from localized or systemic infection. Abscess and malignancy are other common reasons for swollen lymph nodes. Any other reasons for swollen lymph nodes are rare. As a rule, when swelling occurs suddenly and painfully, it is due to a viral or bacterial infection. On the other hand, painless and gradual swelling can mean that the cause is a tumor (of any type). If a human has swelling in the neck and inside the jaw, this is indicative of the mumps. If a rash accompanies the swollen glands, it could be scarlet fever.

In either case, a doctor needs to be seen for any swollen lymph gland. It is important to know that also ear infections, colds, and even small cuts can cause swollen glands as well. However, persistent swollen glands can be the result of a more serious problem and require medical attention. 

When to call the doctor if swollen lymph glands occur?

It is important to see a doctor if your glands do not get smaller after several weeks, or if they continue to get larger. Red and tender lymph glands, as well as hard, irregular, or glands fixed in place should be seen by your doctor. If you experience fever, night sweats, or unexplained weight loss, you should seek for doctor’s advice. Any node in a child that is larger than 1 cm in diameter should be checked by specialists.

Treatment of swollen lymph glands

There is basically no treatment for swollen glands, because swollen glands are just a symptom of a disease and the way the body fights the foreign invader. Still, there are a few things you can do after you notice swollen lymph glands. You can take analgesics or pain relievers, but never give Aspirin to a child unless specifically instructed to do so by a doctor. You could also apply warm or cool moist towels to the site, depending on what feels comfortable, to provide some relief to the swollen lymph glands.

What are lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes are rounded masses of lymphatic tissue, surrounded by a capsule of connective tissue. Lymph nodes filter lymphatic fluid and store white blood cells. They are located along lymphatic vessels. Lymph nodes are sometimes also called lymph glands, and as previously said, they can play a role in cancer development. The reason is the unfortunate ability of the lymphatic system to move cancer cells throughout the body.

Lymph gland cancer

Cancer of the lymph nodes is another cause of swollen glands. However, this is unlikely the cause of painful swelling, because with cancer of the lymph nodes the swelling is slow and painless. There are two types of lymph node cancer, Hodgkins and Non-Hodgkins.

The Hodgkins type of cancer usually occurs in people in aged 20 to 40. Non-Hodgkins cancer usually occurs in people over fourty. Other symptoms that accompany cancer of the lymph nodes include fevers, profuse night sweats, fatigue, loss of appetite and weight, and in the later stages itching and coughing may occur. Hodgkin's disease is one of a group of diseases called lymphomas, produced by cancers forming in the cells of the lymphatic system.

As said earlier, the lymphatic system is a series of microscopic vessels that drain fluid away from the tissues and return it to the blood system. Throughout this system there are small organs called lymph nodes or lymph glands. These clusters are placed all around the body, especially in the neck, groin and armpits; the spleen is also part of this system. The first sign of Hodgkin’s is usually firm but painless swelling of the lymph glands. Swelling of the lymph glands is a natural response to infection, but in this case the glands are also tender to touch. The treatment of Hodgkin's disease normally involves radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or both. The type of treatment depends on the number of clusters of lymph glands and the types of cells involved.

Lymph nodes and their role in spreading cancer

Cancer can spread through the body either through the bloodstream or through lymph nodes. In breast cancer, the cancer cells can move into the sentinel lymph nodes, and then to other parts of the patient’s body. When cancer spreads from one location to another we say the cancer is metastasizing. The most common sign of spreading to the lymph nodes is that one or more of the lymph nodes becomes enlarged. However, if there are only a small number of cells in the lymph nodes, there may not be any obvious signs of this problem. Remember, lymph nodes can become enlarged for other reasons, such as an infection, so you should not be worried immediately you spot an enlarged lymph gland.

Read More: Selenium and its Effect on Immune System, Neutrophils and Thyroid Gland

Are endocrine glands different from lymph glands?

Glands form an important part of the endocrine system. Some of the endocrine glands are the pituitary gland, the thyroid gland, the adrenal glands, and the pancreas. Other important glands are the salivary glands and prostate.

The pituitary is a small gland found near the base of the brain, and an important regulator of many hormones. Interacting with signals from the hypothalamus, it helps produce various hormones which drive the production of some other hormones.
The thyroid gland is situated in the neck, overlying part of the trachea, and is responsible for producing the thyroid hormone, which has many functions in various tissues of the body.

Adrenal glands are otherwise known as the suprarenal glands, small triangular glands situated on top of each kidney. They function interactively with the hypothalamus in the brain and the pituitary to produces many different hormones.
As you can seem the endocrine and lymph systems are two different systems, and the glands they consist of are entirely different.