3 Illnesses That Cause Swollen Necks

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

When you’re sick and go to the doctor, one of the first things we often do is feel your neck. We’re looking for swelling in certain places, which can indicate an infection.

So if your child gets sick and you’re unable to get expert help, if there’s swelling in the neck, that can give you clues about what’s going on.

Here, I’ll talk about three causes: strep throat, mumps, and diphtheria. In the U.S., strep throat is the most common. Because of childhood immunizations, mumps is much less frequent these days, and diphtheria is virtually wiped out. But it is still around in other countries and is occasionally seen here.

What Causes the Swelling

The swelling is usually from enlarged lymph nodes under the jaw and on the sides of the neck. These lymph nodes, or glands, are just doing their job to try to catch an above-the-neck infection (like in the ear, throat, or face) and keep it from spreading.

Neck swelling from mumps comes from a different source: an infected parotid gland. Parotid glands produce saliva to keep your mouth moist. They’re located just in front of and under the ears.

But when the lymph nodes or parotid glands get really large it can be hard to tell them apart.

Tip: With lymph nodes, usually you can feel the discrete borders, and most of the lump will be under the jaw. With a swollen parotid gland, you can’t feel the borders, and it tends make the ear protrude and the angle of the jaw disappear.

Another tip that will clue you in to what might be going on: With mumps and diphtheria, there’ll usually be more than one case going around.


>> Next page: The swollen-necks chart


Thanks to my daughter Beth Hubbard, a flight paramedic and owner of the Alaska wilderness medical survival school Solace of Safety, for the idea for this series.