Lupus and Swollen Lymph Nodes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2024

Many different conditions can cause swollen lymph nodes. Swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of infection or, in some cases, a more serious problem. For example, the first sign of lupus can be swollen lymph nodes.1,2

What is the lymphatic system?

Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, an essential part of your immune system. It is made up of a complex network of vessels, nodes, and organs. The lymphatic system moves watery liquid (called lymph) into your bloodstream.1

The lymphatic system has several jobs, including:1,3

  • Protecting you from infection by producing and releasing immune cells that destroy harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi
  • Filtering fluid and damaged cells from inflamed tissue
  • Moving excess fluid from tissues in your body and returning it to the bloodstream
  • Absorbing fats and vitamins from the digestive tract and delivering them to the bloodstream
  • Destroying old or abnormal cells
  • Filtering waste products out of the body

Problems with the lymphatic system can lead to:3

  • Swelling
  • Infection
  • Poor immune function
  • Wounds that do not heal

What are lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes store immune cells that fight infection. They help clear damaged or cancerous cells from your body.1

You have around 600 lymph nodes throughout your body. You may be able to feel the lymph nodes in your neck, groin, or armpits.1

What causes swollen lymph nodes?

The medical term for swollen lymph nodes is lymphadenopathy. Lymphadenopathy can occur because of:1-3

  • Infection or inflammation like strep throat, mono, HIV, or infected wounds
  • Autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, or dermatomyositis
  • Cancer, especially lymphoma

Why does lupus cause swollen lymph nodes?

Lupus causes the immune system to make substances called autoantibodies. These autoantibodies attack healthy tissues throughout the body and damage them. The damage caused by autoantibodies causes inflammation. Then, the lymphatic system responds to the inflammation.4

Experts estimate that 1 out of every 2 to 3 people with lupus experience swollen lymph nodes. People with lymphadenopathy due to lupus may also have other symptoms, such as fatigue, fever, weight loss, and rash.1,2

If you have already been diagnosed with lupus, swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of a flare. People with lupus are also at increased risk of certain types of cancer. Talk to your doctor if your lymph node swelling does not improve.1,2

How are swollen lymph nodes evaluated?

Your doctor may be able to evaluate your lymph nodes just by feeling them. Or, your doctor may recommend imaging studies, like a CT scan or MRI, to evaluate swollen lymph nodes. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor also may order blood tests, urine tests, and/or a chest X-ray.2,4

An autoimmune disease panel can help with diagnosing lupus and other autoimmune diseases. In some cases, lymph node biopsy may be needed to rule out cancer and other diseases.2,4

Along with swollen lymph nodes, symptoms that may suggest lupus include:4

  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Hair loss
  • Weight loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain

Laboratory findings that may lead to a lupus diagnosis include positive ANA, anti-dsDNA, anti-SM, and low complement levels.2

How are swollen lymph nodes treated?

Treatment of swollen lymph nodes depends on the cause. Sometimes swollen lymph nodes will get better on their own. But if they do not, you may need more evaluation. Finding and treating the underlying cause, such as lupus, is the best way to manage this symptom. If lymph node swelling occurs with fluid collection in the limbs (called edema), a special form of massage therapy may help drain the excess fluid.3

Persistent lymph node swelling and fatigue can be a sign of a serious medical problem. Contact your doctor if you notice swollen lymph nodes that worsen or do not improve. Tell them if you have other symptoms like fatigue, fever, weight loss, or joint pain.1

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