The Symptom That’s Normal When You’re Sick, But Dangerous When You Feel Fine

Feeling a couple pea-sized lumps underneath your neck when you’re sick is usually no big deal. But glands that puff up repeatedly—without any cold or flu-like symptoms—can be the sign of a bigger problem, says a new study from the U.K.

Researchers found that people over 40 who saw their primary care docs with swollen lymph nodes—the glands at the top of your neck and underneath your chin—were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma than those with normal-sized nodes.

Now, there’s no reason to freak out if the bumps pop up while you’re sick. During an illness, your body sends more infection-fighting white blood cells—via your lymphatic fluid—to the infection site. Nearby lymph nodes take that fluid and filter out the harmful substances. The backlog of fluid waiting to be drained is what causes the nodes to swell.

But if your lymph nodes are enlarged with no indication of illness, that might signal a problem. Nodes that are hard, painless, larger than 1 inch, and appear without symptoms—but do not go away after 1 month—may indicate that there is cancer growing in your lymph nodes.

“It’s the cancer cells themselves creating the swelling,” says study coauthor William T. Hamilton, M.D. These tumors can make your lymph nodes feel hard, rather than the softer, pliable bumps you feel when you are under the weather.

It’s a scary sign, but what’s even scarier is that some docs might be brushing it off. In the study, more than 30 percent of the patients visited their primary care doctor with symptoms three or more times before being referred to a cancer specialist. That, of course, means more time before diagnosis—which can affect your chances of beating the big C.

Your move: Get, well, moving. If your glands have been persistently swollen for more than a month—and you haven’t been sick with a sore throat or other upper respiratory infection—make an appointment with your doctor ASAP, says study coauthor Fiona Walter, M.D.

And don’t be afraid to push for faster, further screening, such as imaging tests or a biopsy. That extra action could save your life.