Many individuals learn about lymph nodes and the lymphatic system only after experiencing issues with the lymph nodes behind the ear. Once the lymph nodes behind the ear are swollen, they typically draw immediate attention to them because of the level of sensitivity swollen lymph nodes often produce. Swollen lymph nodes are usually pretty easy to spot and should not be ignored. Lymph nodes are about .5-1 cm long but can grow to the size of a golf ball in cases of extreme inflammation.
What are lymph nodes?
Lymph nodes are small round sacks, about 1 cm long, throughout the body. They are part of the lymphatic system and they work in partnership with the body’s immune system to fight pathogens. Lymph node functions include filtering a substance known as lymph and housing lymphocytes—white blood cells that fight disease. There are about 500-700 hundred nodes throughout the body. High concentrations of lymph nodes exist below the ear (cervical), in the underarms (axillary), around the belly button (mesentery), and in the groin (inguinal).
How to identify swollen lymph nodes
Some lymph nodes can be felt by running your fingers across the skin where high concentrations of nodes reside. When lymph nodes are swollen finding them becomes much easier as they will sometimes bulge out and become tender to the touch. Typically about .5-1 cm long, swollen lymph nodes can swell up to the size of a golf ball—or larger in extreme cases. Severely swollen lymph nodes can be seen protruding from under the skin and can even cause redness or bruised-like discolorations on the skin. Swollen lymph nodes can also be found behind the ear, under the ear, or in front of the ear.
Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes behind the ear
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Stuffy sinuses
- Sinus infection
- Trouble swallowing
Causes of swollen lymph nodes
Infection is typically the main cause of swollen lymph nodes. When infection occurs in the body, specialized cells alarm the body to produce more white blood cells (lymphocytes) which fight infection. The surplus of lymphocytes are stored in the lymph nodes causing them to swell. Pathogens are swept into the lymph nodes—via a network of lymphatic vessels—where they are destroyed. Most often, swollen lymph nodes are a sign of war against infection happening in the node. Pain may subside from swollen lymph nodes although the nodes may still be swollen. This is typically an indication that the infection has been eliminated but the node has not yet cleared out the broken down pathogen. It may take another week or two until the node has been cleared and the swelling completely subsides.
Cause of swollen lymph nodes behind the ear
Lymph nodes located in the head and are the most commonly swollen nodes. Common causes of lymph nodes behind the ear include infections such as:
- Strep throat
- Ear infections
- Tooth infection
- Skin/wound infections
- Neck injury
The ears, nose, and mouth are the closest channels of elimination when experiencing one of the infections mentioned above. For this reason, lymph nodes behind the ear, in the throat, and under the jaw are some of the most commonly swollen nodes. Other causes include cancers like lymphoma or leukemia, certain medications, and certain autoimmune diseases, although these causes are rare.
What to do if you have swollen lymph nodes behind the ear
A warm compress can be placed behind the ear to help soothe swollen nodes. Although swollen lymph nodes caused by infection typically clear up on their own after about 2 weeks, medical attention should be sought out to rule out any life-threatening conditions associated with swollen lymph nodes. You can help your body fight infection and recover quickly by eating foods that naturally support immune system function. In times of immune stress, add these foods to your diet to help fight infection and support a speedy recovery: garlic, lemons, ginger, grapefruit, beets, spinach, and turmeric. Stay away from foods that weaken immune function and cause more work for the body. Processed foods, foods containing processed fats, artificial colors and flavoring, processed sugars, refined flour, and most dairy products should be avoided.
If swelling does not subside within 2 weeks, you should seek medical help. A medical professional will typically prescribe antibiotics for swollen lymph nodes, if necessary. Medical attention should be sought out if:
- Swollen lymph nodes appear for no apparent reason
- Lymph nodes continue to enlarge
- Lymph nodes do not move when you push on them
- Lymph nodes have been present for more than 2 weeks
- Swollen lymph nodes are accompanied by a cough, trouble breathing or swallowing
- Swollen lymph nodes are followed by persistent fever, unexplained weight loss, or night sweats
Disclaimer: Our services and information do not diagnose or prescribe for disease conditions. Individuals are encouraged to seek competent medical help when those services may be indicated. Individuals accept total responsibility for their own health care and maintenance.