If you suffer from any or all of the symptoms mentioned hereunder, we recommend that you consult with your healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition.
A swollen lymph node can indicate an infection and, for the most part, is harmless and painless. Here is what you need to know about the lymph nodes behind the ear, why they may swell and what to do if you notice a swollen lymph.
What Are Lymph Nodes and Their Functions?
Lymph nodes are part of the immune system, and hundreds are in the body. The lymph nodes form clusters behind the ear, neck and armpit. The function of the lymph nodes is to filter the waste products of the body carried through the lymphatic fluid.
Because of their function, lymph nodes get in contact with bacteria or viruses that can cause them to swell. Lymph nodes are the source of lymphocytes, the white blood cells that fight bacteria, viruses and fungi in the body. When the nodes detect a pathogen, they create more lymphocytes to fight it, which makes them swell.
The lymphocytes destroy the pathogens and transform them into waste products that travel through the bloodstream to the kidneys and liver for filtration.
Source: Cambridge University Hospitals
Location and Anatomy of Lymph Nodes Behind the Ear
The nodes in the neck and behind the ear sit close to the skin, so it is easy to feel them when they are swollen. You can check for the lymph nodes behind your ear in the area in the below picture on the temporal bone.
Why are lymph nodes important to inner ear health? Understanding the lymphatic system's connection to the ears and head. The inner ear connects with the immune system via lymphatic drainage. This system allows the ear to protect itself from pathogens.
What May Cause the Swollen Lymph Nodes Behind the Ear
There could be several reasons for swollen lymph nodes behind the ear. The most common causes of swollen lymph nodes are infections in or around the head, including:
- Tooth abscesses or gum infections
- Otitis media
- Bacterial infections in the throat or larynx
- Fungal infections in the scalp
- Autoimmune diseases
- Cancers like lymphoma or leukaemia
Identifying Swollen Lymph Nodes
How can you determine whether you have a swollen lymph node or something else? Sebaceous cysts can also cause bumps behind the ear. Luckily, several signs and symptoms can indicate enlarged lymph nodes:
- Swelling behind the ear
- Pain when you palpate where the lymph nodes are
- Redness of the skin
- Sore throat, jaw pain or a toothache
You can have a swollen lymph node behind one ear or both.
How to check your lymph nodes at home?
Source: Cambridge University Hospitals
Following the image above, palpate the areas around your ears and neck in a circular motion. Check in the order shown in the image, starting with number one. Start with the nodes around the ear, then check the rest in order until you reach just above the collar bone ( number ten in the above image).
- Check both sides.
- An enlarged node may feel like a small, firm ball around the size of a pea or more extensive.
When to seek medical attention for swollen lymph nodes?
Most swollen lymph nodes are benign. However, some signs require further diagnosis. That’s why you should seek a medical evaluation for swollen lymph nodes.
Some signs that require immediate medical attention are:
- You had swelling in your lymph nodes for more than three weeks
- The swollen lymph is more significant than one centimetre
- The skin over the nodes is red or itchy
You have the following symptoms besides the swollen lymph nodes:
- You lost weight unintentionally
- You have a fever, persistent fatigue or night sweats
- You have shortness of breath
What Are the Diagnostic Tests Available for Enlarged Lymph Nodes?
There are several steps your doctor will take to diagnose what could cause your swollen lymph nodes:
A physical exam and medical history
First, the doctor will examine the appearance and texture of the lump behind your ear. The doctor will take your medical history and ask about your symptoms.
A blood test
The doctor may order blood tests to rule out underlying conditions. A Complete Blood Count, for instance, can detect if there is an infection.
Lymph Node Biopsy and Testing
The doctor will order a biopsy if the lump requires a deeper look. The biopsy can be done during the surgery, which is a simple procedure. The doctor or surgeon will take a sample or a lymph node with a local anaesthetic and send it to the lab for examination. A biopsy can detect if the swelling is caused by cancerous cells or other causes.
CT and X Rays
The doctor may order a computerised tomography (CT) of the nodes to detect potential tumours or other swelling causes.
Is There a Link Between Ear Infections and Swollen Lymph Nodes?
Ear infections are a common cause of swollen lymph nodes. Otitis externa or otitis media, like swimmer’s ear, can irritate the ear canal. You can suffer from a virus, a fungal or a bacterial infection in your ear.
Because of the connection between the lymphatic system and ears, the infection can spread to them, causing the nodes to enlarge. Another ear problem that can cause a swollen lymph node is a swollen ear canal, which may cause earache and temporary hearing loss.
Treatment and Home Remedies for Swollen Lymph Nodes
In the meantime, you see a health professional, there are some methods for treating swollen lymph nodes by yourself. Some home remedies for lymph node swelling help alleviate discomfort and pain.
Some swollen lymph nodes can be tender or painful. If that’s the case, and you have no known allergy to the molecules, you can try the following:
- An over-the-counter pain reliever, such as Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, and Aspirin (for adults).
- Alternate warm and cold compresses.
- Getting adequate hydration and rest can help if your body is fighting an infection.
- Gargling with salt water can help alleviate the swelling if you have a sore throat. Add half a teaspoon of salt to prepare saltwater to a cup of warm water. Gargle a couple of times a day until you feel relief.
Remember that a swollen lymph node is a symptom, not a disease. Therefore it requires medical evaluation and treatment of the underlying condition.
What Are the Treatment Options for The Different Causes of Swollen Lymph Nodes?
The treatment for a swollen lymph node will depend on what is causing the swelling. As mentioned above, it can range from viruses, bacterial infections and several disorders. Some causes of swollen lymph nodes may include:
- Viral infection - If a virus causes swollen lymph, you should wait until the virus goes away. Rest and lots of fluids should do the trick.
- Bacterial infection - This type often results in high fever, so the doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics besides over-the-counter fever reducers. Take the antibiotics always at the same time every day and complete the entire course. You’ll probably feel better after the third or four doses.
- Covid-19 - Swollen lymph nodes behind the ear or in the neck can be one of the symptoms of coronavirus. The ear lymph nodes are some of the first to react to an upper respiratory tract infection.
- HIV - If HIV causes your infection, you will receive specific treatment for your condition.
- Immune disorder - Certain conditions like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis can cause swollen lymph. In this case, the treatment is focused on the underlying condition.
- Cancer - These types of lymph nodes require treatment for the cancer, and the inflammation subsides when the cancer is cured.
Is there Something You Can Do to Prevent Swollen Lymph Nodes?
Your lymph nodes are an alarm system for your body, so it is not wise to stop them from swelling when they should. However, there are some practices that you can follow to maintain a healthy lymphatic system.
- Keep hydrated
Dehydration is among the most common causes of swollen lymph nodes and lymphatic congestion. The lymphatic system requires plenty of water to filter wasteful products efficiently. Drinking enough water during the day helps healthy lymphatic function.
- Stay away from toxic chemicals
While we are exposed to chemicals daily, some can damage our bodies. Some cleaning products and pesticide components can build up in your lymphatic system, making it harder to function.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle
The lymphatic system carries fluid to the lymph nodes pumped by the movement of muscle tissue. Therefore, exercising can promote healthy lymphatic activity. Try to engage in different forms of exercise, like running or walking.
- Nutrient-rich diet
A healthy diet of fruits and vegetables supports your general health and improves your immune system. As the lymphatic system is part of the immune system, a nutrient-rich diet can only benefit your lymphatic system.
- Practice manual lymphatic drainage techniques
Some people find benefits in Manual Lymphatic Drainage Technique ( MLDT). MLDTs consist of gentle and rhythmic movements applied to the skin where the lymph nodes are located. The MLDT aims to stimulate the lymphatic system and reduce swelling.
The lymph nodes behind the ear function as one of the body’s alarm systems, swelling up when fighting pathogens, infections or viruses. Detecting swelling lymph nodes behind your ear is part of maintaining ear health, as they can signal an ear infection. If you detect a swollen lymph node, the best is to consult with a healthcare professional.