Lupus and Swollen Lymph Nodes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2020 | Last updated: April 2023

Swollen lymph nodes are a common side effect of lupus, especially during flares.1 Lymphadenopathy is the medical term for swollen lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are a part of the immune system and hundreds are found throughout the body. These bean-shaped body parts help the body fight infection and disease by filtering out bacteria, viruses and abnormal cells.2

Some studies show that swollen lymph nodes tend to be seen along with fever, fatigue, weight loss, skin rashes and lesions, and blood work that indicates lupus is active.

What is lymphadenopathy?

Lymphadenopathy is the medical term for swollen, tender lymph nodes. It should not be confused with lymphedema, which is swelling in the arms or legs. Lymphedema is often caused by cancer treatment that removes or damages lymph nodes.2 In lupus, swollen lymph nodes, or lymphadenopathy, can be a sign of active disease, also known as a flare.1

Some of the drugs commonly prescribed for lupus, such as cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, mycophenolate, or methotrexate, may also lead to swollen lymph nodes.1

Swollen lymph nodes causes

About 50 percent of people with lupus have swollen lymph nodes at any time. These lymph nodes are found most often in the neck, armpits, or groin area. Doctors believe this is just a result of an overactive immune system. The spleen, which is another part of the lymph system, may also swell.3

Swollen lymph nodes diagnosis

Many times, swollen lymph nodes can be diagnosed during a physical exam either by sight or touch. Lymph nodes deep in the trunk of the body (the groin or under the ribs) may be diagnosed using a chest X-ray, CT scan, or PET scan.4

Blood work may be necessary to rule out an infection. A biopsy (a small tissue sample cut from the lymph node) can tell your doctor if your symptoms are caused by lupus, or some other condition, such as an infection or lymphoma.

Since people with lupus have an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers, it is important to monitor swollen lymph nodes and conduct a biopsy to rule out these potential causes.5

Swollen lymph nodes treatment

If your lymph nodes are swollen because of a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Viruses are best treated with bed rest, and extra nutrition and fluids.5 If your glands are swollen because your lupus is flaring, antimalarials, steroids, and immunosuppressants may be prescribed to try and control the underlying cause of the swelling.6

Swollen lymph nodes caused by cancer will be treated with some combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.6

Home remedies may help relieve the pain and discomfort of swollen lymph nodes. A warm, wet compress on the affected area can help, as will over-the-counter NSAID pain relievers.6

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