Swollen Armpit

Guide to Understanding a Swollen Armpit

Anytime a person has a swollen armpit, it likely means that the lymph nodes are involved, which could be something minor or a sign of something more serious.  The lymph nodes, which are located in different parts of the body to include the neck and armpit, are a part of the lymphatic system, which is connected to the immune system.  When the lymph nodes become swollen, it usually indicates infection.

Lymph nodes are shaped like beans but are actually soft tissue, which surrounds cells containing blood cells, as well as some red blood cells and intestines fluid.  Additionally, nodes have a duct system that moves things through the vein to keep circulation needed by the body.  These nodes also contain infectious substances and antigens, which are foreign substances to the body.  Cells within the lymph nodes are called lymphocytes, responsible for producing antibodies to bind foreign substances and macrophages that digest all the debris, kind of like natural cleaners.

Because lymph node sites are where all these infectious and foreign substances mingle with cells, when an infection occurs, such as under the arm, you would first notice a swollen armpit and usually, tenderness or pain.  Infection is the number one reason for a swollen armpit or nodes regardless of location, which causes white blood cells to increase for fighting off infection.  However, a swollen armpit or other swollen lymph node could be associated with any of the following:

  • Inflammation – As a result of infection, sometimes the inflammatory cells fill the nodes
  • Virus – When we talk about a virus, this is a general infection somewhere in the body that could be in the form of a viral infection connected with a cold or lymph nodes being affected, adding to the problem of a swollen armpit
  • Cancer in the Blood – One of the more serious problems associated with a swollen armpit or other swollen lymph node is cancer in the blood, which is malignant and usually lymphoma or leukemia, serious forms of cancer hard to treat
  • Cancer – The second serious cause of swollen lymph nodes is when the nodes are infiltrated with malignant cells coming from a specific area that is cancerous

Typically what happens is while showering, bathing, or putting on deodorant, a slight tenderness is felt, and when examined, a swollen armpit is found.  However, regardless of the involved, it is common for other physical symptoms to be present such as sore throat, low-grade fever, and even runny nose.  In fact, some people will experience redness or rash, as well as soreness running from the involved node toward the heart.  Additionally, if the lymph node is being blocked, swelling might move down to an arm, causing swelling.

Sometimes, a swollen armpit or other involved lymph node becomes infected where swelling throughout the body is seen, such as in the case of mononucleosis, HIV, or a parasitic or fungal infection.  However, because lymph nodes are associated with the immune system, other illnesses to include arthritis and lupus could also cause overall swelling.  Usually, nodes connected with a swollen armpit do not grow fast and turn into a hard mass so treatment can often be provided once tenderness and swelling are first noticed.

Keep in mind that if a swollen armpit or any swollen lymph node is found, there are times when medical help is needed.  As an example, swelling might be a slight infection that will go away on its own in a day or two but if the swelling goes on for two or more weeks, it is time to see a doctor to rule out something serious.  Other times when seeing a doctor would be warranted includes the following:

  • Weight Loss
  • Ongoing Fever
  • Increasing Fatigue
  • Night Sweats
  • Node Becoming Hard or Growing in Size
  • Swollen Armpit Starts to Involve the Lower Part of the Neck or Near the Collarbone
  • Skin Becomes Red and Inflamed

When a doctor is seen, if the swollen armpit is due to localized infection, the node may need to be drained but this is rare.  The doctor would perform an examination and in some instances, a CT scan or x-ray may be required, as well as blood tests.  Depending on what the doctor suspects, he or she may also want a biopsy of the node so a small piece of tissue can be more closely examined.

If the swollen armpit or other lymph node is only a slight infection, you might be prescribed antibiotics and pain relievers, as well as be told to take it easy for a week or two.  However, if the node appears to be growing or tests indicate a serious problem to include cancer, the doctor might recommend more aggressive treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery.  Remember, usually a swollen armpit is nothing more than a small, localized infection but pay attention or if you have concerns prior to two weeks, see your doctor.