Neck lump quiz
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Understand your neck lump symptoms with Buoy, including 9 causes and common questions concerning your neck lump.
8 most common causes
Neck lump symptoms
When many of us think of neck issues, pain and discomfort are the first things that pop into mind. Neck lumps, however, may not be painful, but certainly warrant attention once noticed. "Lump" is an all-too-common medical term these days. The connotation of the word is almost always negative and frequently associated with cancer. While the presence of a neck lump is not an immediate cause for panic, understanding and monitoring the symptoms will help dictate the path forward.
Common characteristics of a neck lump
If you have a neck lump, it can likely be described by the following.
- Visible mass in the neck
- Mass in the neck detected only by touch (not visible)
- Neck swelling
- Neck tenderness/pain
One of the most important tasks performed by the neck is linking the head to the rest of the body through muscles and vessels. In addition, the neck houses critical components for breathing, speaking and eating. The glands, nodes, and muscles can all develop a lump, and while the lump itself might be noticeable, the underlying cause may not be as clear.
Neck lump causes
Cancer always comes to mind when lumps are discussed. The good news is that, most commonly, a neck lump in an adult is not caused by cancer. That is not to say that the importance of a neck lump should ever be overlooked. A wide range of causes exist, and many require treatment to ensure proper healing.
Systemic disease causes
Neck lumps may be caused by systemic disease, such as the following.
- Tumors: Whether cancerous or not, growths in the neck result in neck lumps. The majority of neck lumps are not cancerous and are caused by conditions such as tonsillitis or are cysts or benign lipomas.
- Nodules: Nodules are another form of abnormal growth, typically on the thyroid gland. The thyroid is located just below the Adam's apple and can show lumps from nodules or cancer.
- Viruses: Cold viruses affect the upper respiratory system, including components of the neck. Lymph nodes can swell as they fight the virus (lymphadenopathy).
Bacterial or viral infections can result in inflammation and neck lump symptoms. Glands (lymph nodes), such as the salivary glands, commonly produce such lumps when infected. Infections may develop from instances as minor as an insect bite or small cut.
An allergic reaction occurs when the body overcompensates to defend itself from what it believes to be a harmful substance. Swelling of the lymph nodes, which results in neck lump symptoms, is a potential side effect of an allergic reaction.
9 neck lump conditions
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Viral throat infection
A sore throat is most often caused by the same viruses that cause influenza and the common cold. The illness spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and then someone else inhales the airborne virus or touches a surface where it has landed.
Those most at risk for viral sore throat are children, smokers, those who work indoors with others, and anyone with a weakened immune system.
Symptoms include throat irritation; pain when swallowing or talking; red, swollen tonsils; fever; body aches; and cold-like symptoms of cough, sneezing, and runny nose.
If symptoms do not clear up within 24 hours – especially in children – a medical provider should be seen. A persistent sore throat can be a symptom of serious illness such as mononucleosis, measles, chickenpox, or croup.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and throat swab.
Treatment involves rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Do not give aspirin to children. Antibiotics only work against bacteria and cannot help against a viral illness.
The best prevention is frequent and thorough handwashing.
A cyst is a small sac or lump, filled with fluid, air, fat, or other material, that begins to grow somewhere in the body for no apparent reason. A skin cyst is one that forms just beneath the skin.
It's believed that skin cysts form around trapped keratin cells – the cells that form the relatively tough outer layer of the skin.
These cysts are not contagious.
Anyone can get a skin cyst, but they are most common in those who are over age 18, have acne, or have injured the skin.
Symptoms include the appearance of a small, rounded lump under the skin. Cysts are normally painless unless infected, when they will be reddened and sore and contain pus.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination. A small cyst can be left alone, though if it is unsightly or large enough to interfere with movement it can be removed in a simple procedure done in a doctor's office. An infected cyst must be treated so that the infection does not spread.
Top Symptoms: skin-colored armpit bump, marble sized armpit lump, small armpit lump
Symptoms that always occur with skin cyst: skin-colored armpit bump
Urgency: Wait and watch
A skin abscess is a large pocket of pus that has formed just beneath the skin. It is caused by bacteria getting under the skin, usually through a small cut or scratch, and beginning to multiply. The body fights the invasion with white blood cells, which kill some of the infected tissue but form pus within the cavity that remains.
Symptoms include a large, red, swollen, painful lump of pus anywhere on the body beneath the skin. There may be fever, chills, and body aches from the infection.
If not treated, there is the risk of an abscess enlarging, spreading, and causing serious illness.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination.
A small abscess may heal on its own, through the body's immune system. But some will need to be drained or lanced in a medical provider's office so that the pus can be cleaned out. Antibiotics are usually prescribed.
Keeping the skin clean, and using only clean clothes and towels, will help to make sure that the abscess does not recur.
Top Symptoms: rash with bumps or blisters, red rash, red skin bump larger than 1/2 cm in diameter, pus-filled rash, rash
Symptoms that always occur with skin abscess: rash with bumps or blisters
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Sarcoidosis means the growth of tiny granulomas, which are collections of inflammatory cells. They are most common in the lungs, skin, and eyes.
The condition is thought to be an autoimmune response, meaning that the body turns against itself for unknown reasons.
Sarcoidosis can affect anyone. It is most common in women of African descent from age 20 to 40.
Symptoms include fatigue, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and unexplained weight loss. There is often dry cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest pain. The skin may show unusual sores or bumps. Eyes may be reddened and painful, with blurred vision.
These symptoms should be seen by a medical provider, since sarcoidosis can cause organ damage if left untreated.
Diagnosis is made through careful physical examination, blood tests, lung function tests, eye examination, and sometimes biopsy and chest x-ray.
Treatment involves corticosteroid medication; drugs to suppress the immune system; and sometimes surgery. There is no cure for sarcoidosis, but it can be managed. Some cases will clear up on their own.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, joint pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Pimples are also called comedones, spots, blemishes, or "zits." Medically, they are small skin eruptions filled with oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria.
Pimples often first start appearing at puberty, when hormones increase the production of oil in the skin and sometimes clog the pores.
Most susceptible are teenagers from about ages 13 to 17.
Symptoms include blocked pores that may appear flat and black on the surface, because the oil darkens when exposed to the air; blocked pores that appear white on the surface because they have closed over with dead skin cells; or swollen, yellow-white, pus-filled blisters surrounded by reddened skin.
Outbreaks of pimples on the skin can interfere with quality of life, making the person self-conscious about their appearance and causing pain and discomfort in the skin. A medical provider can help to manage the condition, sometimes through referral to a dermatologist.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination.
Treatment involves improving diet; keeping the skin, hair, washcloths, and towels very clean; and using over-the-counter acne remedies.
Top Symptoms: pink or red facial bump, small facial lump, painful facial bump, marble sized facial lump
Symptoms that always occur with pimple: pink or red facial bump
Lipoma is a word that translates as "fatty tumor," but a lipoma is not cancer. It is simply a growth of fat between the muscle layer and the skin above it.
The exact cause is not known. The condition does run in families and is associated with other unusual syndromes such as adiposis dolorosa, which is similar. Lipomas most often appear after age 40.
Symptoms include a soft, easily moveable lump beneath the skin, about two inches across. A lipoma is painless unless its growth is irritating the nerves around it. They are most often found on the back, neck, and abdomen, and sometimes the arms and upper legs.
It is a good idea to have any new or unusual growth checked by a medical provider, just to make certain it is benign.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, biopsy, and imaging such as ultrasound or CT scan.
Most of the time, treatment is not necessary unless the lipoma is unsightly or is interfering with other structures. It can be removed through surgery or liposuction.
Top Symptoms: skin-colored groin bump, marble sized groin lump, small groin lump
Symptoms that always occur with lipoma: skin-colored groin bump
Urgency: Wait and watch
Head and neck cancer
There are five main types of head and neck cancer, which are all named according to the part of the body where they develop: laryngeal (voice box), nasal cavity and sinus, nasopharyngeal (air passage way behind the nose), oral (mouth), and salivary gland cancers. Most of these cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs), meaning they begin in the flat (squamous) cells that make up the thin surface layer of the structures in the head and neck.
You should visit your primary care physician who will coordinate your care with a cancer specialist (oncologist) for further testing. It is impossible to definitively diagnosis head and neck cancers without lab testing and biopsy. Treatment is likely to include surgery and chemotherapy.
Top Symptoms: loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, hoarse voice, neck bump, ear canal pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
Enlarged lymph nodes occur when the node becomes larger as it fills with inflammatory cells. This often is a result of an infection but can occur without a known cause.
You should discuss with a health care provider whether or not your lymph node needs to be checked. Enlarged lymph nodes will usually shrink on their own. To speed up the process, try applying a warm, wet compress to the affected area.
Top Symptoms: neck bump, movable neck lump
Symptoms that always occur with enlarged lymph nodes in the neck: neck bump
Symptoms that never occur with enlarged lymph nodes in the neck:unintentional weight loss, fever, hard neck lump
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common kind of skin cancer. It can develop almost anywhere on the body. It appears as abnormal spots or bumps on the skin. These bumps are often pink, red, or skin-colored and sometimes have a shiny surface. The main risk factor for developing this condition is prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Sun exposure and tanning beds are both sources of UV radiation. People with a history of sunburns, previous skin cancer, and a weakened immune system are at higher risk for this condition.
Most cases of BCC can be easily treated because they grow slowly. Though if not treated, it can spread inside the body. Your provider will do a skin exam and possibly skin sample test, known as a biopsy. Treatment will depend on where the cancer is, its size, and your medical history. Some treatment options include cutting out the bump, freezing it, or using medicated skin cream.
Top Symptoms: facial skin changes, pink or red facial bump, small facial lump, painless facial bump, growing facial lump
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Neck lump treatments and relief
To reiterate, neck lumps are usually not cancerous. That being said, a neck lump should always be taken seriously. A call to your doctor is always recommended when a neck lump is discovered.
When to see a doctor
In particular, it is important to set up an appointment with a medical professional for any of the following:
- Abnormal swelling/lumps
- Painful lumps
- Existing lumps that change in shape, size, or feel
Your doctor will recommend the best course of action to treat a neck lump. After a thorough examination, the proper course may involve monitoring of the lump or more extensive diagnostic testing and treatment. Common treatments for neck lump symptoms are as follows:
Professional treatment may involve the following.
- Surgery: If the neck lump is potentially harmful, it will likely require removal through surgical procedures.
- Medications: Antibiotics could be prescribed by your doctor to treat infection and reduce the swelling. Medications may also be prescribed to limit the symptoms of severe forms of allergies.
- Cancer treatments: If the neck lump is cancerous, your team of medical professionals may recommend treatments such as radioactive iodine, external beam-radiation, or targeted treatments specially designed to treat certain forms of cancer. A biopsy of the neck lump will likely precede such treatments.
- Observation: Some form of preliminary testing will likely be performed to determine the importance of a neck lump. If these tests are negative, then your doctor may recommend recurring visits to monitor the neck lump for changes.
When it is an emergency
Seek immediate care if you experience:
- A persistent or worsening fever
- Nausea or vomiting
- Trouble breathing
- Severe or worsening pain
- Rapid or concerning changes to the neck lump
Neck lumps signal a change in physiology and warrant attention. When gauging concern over a new neck lump be sure to consider your overall health. An ongoing illness, like a cold, or a recent troublesome wound that won't heal properly could be the cause of the neck lump symptoms. It may be unlikely that the lump signals cancer, but it is possible. Always consult your doctor to ensure proper treatment and peace of mind.
Questions your doctor may ask about neck lump
- What color is the bump?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Do you feel pain when you touch the bump?
- Is the bump hard or soft?
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- Haynes J, Arnold KR, Aguirre-Oskins C, Chandra S. Evaluation of Neck Masses in Adults. Am Fam Physician. 2015 May 15;91(10):698-706. AAFP Link
- Neck lump. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated Jan. 28, 2019. MedlinePlus Link
- Thyroid Nodules. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link
- Karpf M. Lymphadenopathy. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, editors. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths; 1990. Chapter 149. NCBI Link
- If You Have Head or Neck Cancer. American Cancer Society. Updated March 9, 2018. American Cancer Society Link