It is quiet annoying to find sudden bulge in your armpit one fine morning while you change your clothes or take bath. It is a natural instinct to know what the swelling is all about. Well most of the time it is swollen lymph node in the armpit.
Lymph nodes are tiny bean shaped structures present in clusters in different parts of the body, such as armpits, groin, neck, abdomen, in lungs etc. In some places where they are superficial, just below the skin they can be easily palpated when they enlarge.
Now you may ask what these lymph nodes are and why they are present. Lymph nodes are part of lymphatic system that runs parallel to your vascular system. The role of lymph nodes is to trap the dead bacteria, viruses and tissue debris as it passes through the lymphatic channel. In most cases, swollen lymph nodes in the underarm are due to infection and they are painful. While infection is one of the reasons, more alarming cause is malignancy of nearby tissues and organs.
The cluster of lymph nodes in arm is also referred as axillary lymph nodes, as they are present in axilla, a medical name for armpit. There are three regions from where the lymph fluid drains into the axillary lymph nodes and these three regions are breast, upper arm and the chest wall. Inflammation and infection anywhere in these regions can cause the lymph glands to swell.
What Causes Swollen Lymph Nodes In The Armpit?
There are several reasons that can be responsible for swollen lymph nodes in the armpit.
- The most common is bacterial infection in the armpit.
- Viral infection: infectious mononucleosis, herpes virus or HIV infection can give rise to swollen lymph nodes in the underarm.
- Cancer of breast: the second most common cause for lymph gland enlargement in the armpits. Since the lymph drainage of breast is in the axillary lymph nodes, an inflammation or cancer of breast can cause swelling of lymph nodes in the axilla.
- In children there may be swelling of underarm lymph nodes after vaccination on the arms e.g. measles, MMR, typhoid vaccines etc.
- Allergy to certain drugs can cause swelling of underarm lymph nodes.
Symptoms Of Swollen Axillary Lymph Nodes
There is variety of symptoms associated with lump in the armpit. It all depends on the underlying cause.
- If there is a boil or local infection in the armpit the lymph gland becomes swollen, tender to touch and soft to feel. The area may turn red and inflamed. Patient often complains of throbbing pain in the armpit. It prevents free movement of arm. Fever, body ache are associated symptoms. The most important sign of this swelling is, it is soft to palpate and it fluctuates when pressed. The lymph node is warm to touch.
- If the lymph node is stony hard or rubbery and matted with no pain, the chances of malignancy are high. It may be related to breast cancer.
- In HIV or infectious mononucleosis or Hodgkin’s disease, lymph nodes in other regions are also enlarged.
Treatment For Swollen Lymph Nodes In Armpit
It is absolutely necessary to consult a surgeon when you find a lymph gland swelling in the armpit if it does not recede within few days. In most cases a physical examination by a surgeon helps to determine the exact cause, if there is any confusion the surgeon may advice a biopsy or fine needle aspiration test to detect the exact cause.
- In case of a ripe boil, the surgeon will drain the boil or an abscess with an incision. When the lymph gland is hard, warm and painful due to bacterial infection, he may advice warm sponging to make it soft and drain easily.
- When the lymph gland is hard or rubbery in consistency, a fine needle biopsy may help to determine the cause. The surgeon may also search for any growth in breast tissue or the nearby structures. If the biopsy result is positive for cancer, an extensive investigation may help to determine the exact area of the source of spread. Accordingly, the treatment is planned.
- When the reason is allergy, removing the triggering factor may reduce the size of lymph node within few days.