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There are many structures in the neck that can cause lumps, bumps and swelling to appear. The most common of these are inflamed lymph nodes, which are quite numerous. Fortunately, most neck lumps and swellings are usually non-cancerous or benign.

Causes of Lumps, Bumps and Neck Swellings

  • The most common cause of a neck lump is a swollen or inflamed lymph node. Lymph nodes are tiny, oval-shaped glands which are widely distributed throughout the body, including the neck. These small lymphatic organs serve to trap foreign matter that may infect or invade the body. They serve to fight bacterial and viral infections but they may also react to cancer and allergic conditions. In the neck, lymph nodes may become swollen as a defense reaction to infectious conditions such as tonsillitis, strep throat, pharyngitis, tuberculosis, infectious mononucleosis, and HIV. They may also enlarge as a reaction to cancer of the thyroid, Hodgkins disease, goiter and leukemia. Allergic reactions may also trigger enlargement of lymph nodes in the neck.

  • Salivary glands located under the jaw may become infected and may manifest as swelling in the neck under the jaw. In addition, a blockage in one of the salivary ducts or cancer of the salivary glands (less common) can cause a neck lump to appear.

  • Sometimes a swelling in the neck muscles caused by torticollis occurs. This may cause the head to tilt to one side and limit head and neck mobility. Stiffness and neck pain are common.

  • Another common cause of neck swelling is enlargement of the thyroid gland, which is located in front of the throat. This condition is commonly related to goiter or Graves disease. Cancer of the thyroid can also cause swelling of the gland.

  • A lump under the skin in the neck may be caused by a sebaceous cyst or a lipoma, which are also non-cancerous conditions. These are usually painless, slow growing lumps that are movable and soft or doughy to touch.

  • Cancer in any part of the neck can cause growth of a mass or tumor in this area. Invasion of cancer cells (metastasis) to the lymph nodes from nearby structures or even from distant organs can also cause swelling of these glands.

When to Call a Doctor

A lump in the neck that disappears within two to three weeks is usually not associated with a serious condition. It is most commonly due to an infection in the throat or neck, which disappears when the infection is treated. Accompanying symptoms include fever, tenderness of the nodes, and sore throat. You may call a doctor if symptoms do not improve after usual home care treatments.

While younger individuals are more likely to suffer from neck and throat infections, people who are older than forty are at risk for cancer in the throat, neck, and other parts of the body. Other risk factors include smoking, alcohol abuse and HIV.

Consult a doctor if a painless lump in your neck is growing steadily and is accompanied by unusual symptoms such as a progressive change in voice, persistent difficulty in swallowing, chronic earache, an unusual growth in the mouth, bleeding and skin changes.

In these cases, it is important to establish a proper diagnosis so early treatment can be given.

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