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Neck Swelling on One Side Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Understand your neck swelling on one side symptoms, including 7 causes and common questions.

12 most common causes

Hyperthyroidism
Ludwig's Angina
Skin Abscess
Mumps
Illustration of a person thinking with cross bandaids.
Neck Sprain
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Tooth abscess
Pharyngitis
Illustration of various health care options.
Branchial cleft anomaly
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Non-specific neck pain
Illustration of various health care options.
Acute thyroiditis
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Retropharyngeal abscess
Illustration of various health care options.
Enlarged Lymph Nodes in the Neck

Neck swelling quiz

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Neck swelling on one side symptoms

Swelling is the result of fluid buildup that gets trapped in your body's tissues. Most people first notice swelling because the affected body part may appear larger than normal. Swelling on one side of the neck can be especially concerning because in most cases it forms a lump that is hard to miss.

Characteristics

Neck swelling on one side can signal a variety of different causes and may be associated with symptoms such as:

If you experience unilateral neck swelling and any of the associated symptoms, make an appointment with your healthcare provider promptly.

Neck swelling on one side causes

Any condition that causes an accumulation of fluid in the tissues and organs of the neck can result in unilateral swelling. These conditions can range in severity, so it is important to follow up with your healthcare provider on symptoms.

Inflammatory

Inflammatory causes of neck swelling on one side may be related to the following.

  • Infectious: There are many bacterial and viral pathogens that can infect the organs of the neck and mouth that can result in swelling on one side of the neck. For example, swollen salivary glands including the parotid gland, though situated in the lower mouth/jaw, can look like a neck lump depending on the extent of the swelling. Infections in this area can also result in cysts and abscesses that may present as neck swelling as well.
  • Lymphatics: The lymphatic system is anetwork of organs, vessels, and glands throughout the body important for immune function. The glands of the system, also called lymph nodes, function to filter and trap viruses, bacteria and other pathogens before they can spread and infect other parts of the body. They play an important role in your body's ability to fight infection and often swell in the setting of inflammatory conditions, including infections.

Thyroid

The thyroid is a gland in the neck important for secreting hormones that regulate metabolism, growth, and how your body uses energy throughout life. Its prominent location in the neck makes it a very common cause of neck swelling when it becomes inflamed, enlarged or damaged. Many conditions and even factors related to your diet can cause this gland to enlarge, sometimes resulting in swelling on one side of the neck.

Cancer

A swelling on one side of the neck is frightening because it may signal a cancerous process. In general, any growth is the result of cells dividing and growing uncontrollably. Sometimes there

is a genetic mutation in DNA or a specific protein, or failure in an important checkpoint that results in this unchecked growth. These abnormal cells accumulate to form a noticeable lump that can be either benign or malignant (spread throughout the body).

  • Lymphatics: The lymphatic system is susceptible to cancer. Cancers of this system are called lymphomas and there are many different types. Lymphomas often occur in the lymph nodes of the neck and can grow very rapidly, causing massive swelling and associated symptoms of fatigue, night sweats, and unintentional weight loss.
  • Other: The other organs of the neck are also susceptible to the development of cancer. Anything from the nasal cavity to the larynx can develop cancer, especially in individuals who smoke or abuse alcohol.

12 conditions of neck swelling on one side

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.

Neck swelling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swelling.

Take neck swelling quiz

Tooth abscess (infection)

A tooth abscess is a collection of infected material (pus) in the center of a tooth. It is due to a bacterial infection.

You should seek dental care within 24 hours. The diagnosis is made based on your history, an exam, and an x-ray of the mouth. If the abscess is affecting your breathing, it's considered a medical emergency and you should seek emergency care. Treatment involves incision and drainage of the abscess in addition to antibiotics.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: severe jaw or tooth pain, swollen jaw, jaw stiffness, tooth pain that gets worse with hot, cold, or sweet beverages, warm and red jaw swelling

Symptoms that always occur with tooth abscess (infection): severe jaw or tooth pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Skin abscess

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.

Retropharyngeal abscess

Retropharyngeal abscess is a collection of pus in the tissues in the back of the throat. It is a potentially life-threatening medical condition.

This is a medical emergency. Please seek out urgent care at your closest Emergency Department today. Diagnosis is done with imaging. Treatment is immediate surgical drainage and antibiotics.

Overactive thyroid

Overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, means that the thyroid gland in the neck produces an excess of the hormone thyroxine and causes a metabolic imbalance.

Hyperthyroidism can be caused by autoimmune disorders such as Graves' disease; by benign growths in the thyroid; or by inflammation of the gland, called thyroiditis.

The condition may run in families. Women seem to be more commonly affected than men.

Hyperthyroidism causes very high metabolism with sudden and unexplained weight loss, rapid and irregular heartbeat, sweating, nervousness, and anxiety.

Goiter, or swelling of the thyroid gland, may appear at the base of the neck. The eyeballs can protrude and become irritated, a condition called Graves' ophthalmopathy.

If not treated, hyperthyroidism can lead to serious heart rhythm abnormalities and osteoporosis. An endocrinologist can diagnose the condition through a physical examination and simple blood test.

Treatment is done with anti-thyroid medications and sometimes radioactive iodine. Surgery to remove part of the thyroid gland may be done. The condition usually responds well to treatment and monitoring, and to improved diet, exercise, and stress reduction.

Non-specific neck pain

Non-specific neck pain means there was no definite injury or incident to account for the cause of the pain. If it lasts longer than three months with no resolution, it is considered chronic.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and sometimes through imaging, primarily to rule out causes such as fracture or arthritis.

Neck pain often goes away on its own, only to return again for no apparent reason. However, a medical provider can offer some solutions to ease the symptoms and improve quality of life.

Treatment involves physical therapy, with exercises to improve stretching and encourage strengthening; applying a heating pad or a cold pack; and over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen. Other treatments may include traction; therapeutic massage; chiropractic manipulation of the neck and the rest of the spine; and electrotherapy, which helps to stimulate production of the body's natural painkillers.

Alternate therapies such as acupuncture, laser therapy, and even psychological counseling may be tried. Simple lifestyle improvements in diet, exercise, and stress management are sometimes very helpful.

Neck sprain

Neck sprain, sometimes called "whiplash," means that the ligaments – the tough, fibrous bands that connect bones together – in the neck have been torn or overstretched.

It is caused by a sudden impact that causes the head to whip back and forth very suddenly, most commonly from an automobile accident or riding a fast amusement park ride. A sports injury may force the neck to overstretch, spraining the ligaments.

Symptoms include pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders, and upper back; dizziness; ringing in the ears; and sometimes spots of numbness in the hands and arms.

It is important to see a medical provider about these symptoms, to rule out any damage to the spinal cord. Paralysis, difficulty walking, or loss of control over bladder and bowels indicate a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, tests of reflexes, and sometimes x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

Treatment includes rest and over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease pain and reduce inflammation. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed.

Mumps

Mumps or "the mumps" is a viral infection for which most people have been vaccinated when they were a child. Though in rare cases, even vaccinated people can still get sick. Symptoms of the are swelling of the parotid gland (this gland produces your spit and is located in the cheek), fever, face pain and a sore throat.

Since this infection is caused by a virus, treatment with antibiotics is not helpful. It usually resolves on its own. You can seek advice over the phone or in a retail clinic to have other infections ruled out and get symptomatic treatment. If you are pregnant and possibly exposed to mumps, you need to call your doctor.

Ludwig's angina

Ludwig angina is a bacterial infection of the floor of the mouth and occurs beneath the tongue.

You should visit an emergency room immediately. This requires immediate antibiotic treatment and, in some cases, surgery.

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.

Rarity: Rare

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.

Rarity: Common

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

Neck swelling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swelling.

Take neck swelling quiz

Branchial cleft anomaly

A branchial cleft anomaly (abnormality) is a mass of unusual tissues within the neck. These tissues may form fluid-filled pockets called cysts, or they may form passages (called fistulas) that drain to an opening in the skin.

You should visit your primary care physician who will perform a thorough physical exam. Branchial cleft anomalies are usually treated with surgery, and it is important to check for any infection.

Acute thyroiditis

Acute thyroiditis is a rare inflammation of the thyroid gland caused by an infection, radiation, medication, or trauma.

You should seek immediate medical care at an ER. This is possibly a medical emergency and requires immediate diagnosis (thyroid function tests, blood tests, and imaging) and treatment (antibiotics, supportive care, stopping causative drugs).

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: sore throat, fever, being severely ill, hoarse voice, pain in the front of the neck

Symptoms that always occur with acute thyroiditis: pain in the front of the neck

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Neck swelling on one side treatments and relief

Treatment for neck swelling on one side will depend on the specific cause. Your healthcare provider may make the following suggestions/treatments in the setting of neck swelling.

  • Antibiotics: If your symptoms are due to a bacterial cause, your physician will prescribe the appropriate antibiotics to combat your condition. It is important to take your antibiotics as prescribed in order to gain adequate treatment.
  • Supportive care: Many causes of enlarged lymph nodes may be viral in nature. Viral causes will not resolve with antibiotics, and your physician will most likely suggest supportive remedies, such as resting or pain relief if that is the case.
  • Surgery: If your thyroid has enlarged to the point that it causes difficulty swallowing or unnecessary discomfort, it may be treated with surgical removal. Depending on how much of the thyroid is removed, you may need to take a supplement to replace the hormone (levothyroxine) normally made by the organ.
  • Cancer treatment: Lymphoma treatment may involve chemotherapy, immunotherapy medications, radiation therapy, a bone marrow transplant, or some combination of these. Other cancer treatments involve similar treatment modalities as well.

FAQs about neck swelling on one side

Here are some frequently asked questions about neck swelling on one side.

Why is only one side of my neck swollen?

The unilateral nature of your neck swelling may signal different things depending on the cause. For example, the swelling can be one-sided because the lymph nodes on that particular side are more activated in comparison to the other. In the same vein, a salivary gland on only one side may be infected. When the thyroid gland is involved, at times it may enlarge asymmetrically and cause swelling on one side more than the other.

How long will the swelling on my neck last?

The duration of the swelling is dependent on the root cause. For example, swollen lymph nodes due to infectious causes often resolve once the illness resolves. With causes that are related to the thyroid or cancerous processes, the resolution is often dependent on specific treatment.

Will the swelling spread to other parts of my body?

In cases of aggressive lymphoma, swelling and involvement of the lymph nodes or other organs of the lymphatic system can spread throughout the body.

Does lymphoma spread quickly?

Lymphomas can be divided into different types. The most common categorization are Non-Hodgkin lymphoma vs. Hodgkin lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphomas can often spread very quickly and the signs and associated symptoms, such as night sweats or weight loss, can be very severe.

Does lymphoma go into remission?

According to Lymphoma-action.org, for most people lymphoma will never relapse after successful treatment. The goal of treatment, especially for low-grade lymphomas, is remission. If you have a good remission, you are likely to have a longer time before your lymphoma relapses.

Questions your doctor may ask about neck swelling on one side

  • If you touch the swollen area, is there pain?
  • Do food or drinks get stuck when you swallow?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Did you recently injure your neck?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

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