What causes neck lumps and when to see a doctor

Neck lumps can be worrying, however, it is important to note that most are not cancerous (benign). 

Common causes of benign neck lumps that occur on the side of your neck include lymph nodes that have swollen in response to an infection (reactive lymph nodes), salivary gland lumps and cysts (fluid-filled masses). 

Neck lumps that occur on the front of your neck are often caused by thyroid problems, such as goitre, thyroid nodules or Graves’ disease. 

Cancerous neck lumps can be caused by the spread of a cancer from another area in your head or neck, such as your throat, or be a primary cancer such as a lymphoma or salivary gland cancer. 

When to see a doctor

If you notice swelling on both sides of your neck in response to an infection, such as tonsillitis, this will usually get better on its own. However, if you have persistent tonsillitis, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove your tonsils

If you notice a neck lump on just one side of your neck that persists for several weeks, you should see your GP

Based on your symptoms and a physical examination, they may recommend further investigations, such as imaging tests and/or a biopsy where a tissue sample is collected from your neck lump. 

Depending on the results of your investigations, your doctor will determine whether or not you need treatment and if so, what kind. 

If your neck lump is red and swollen or oozing, see a doctor urgently as there may be an infection that needs draining and/or treatment with a course of antibiotics. 

You should also see a doctor urgently if your neck lump is rapidly increasing in size, causing discomfort by pressing against nearby tissue or making it difficult for you to breathe or swallow.

Treating neck lumps

Most benign neck lumps don’t need treatment if they aren’t causing you any symptoms or reducing your quality of life. However, benign lumps that cause recurrent problems (eg branchial cysts or thyroglossal cysts that become infected) may need surgery to remove them. 

Cancerous neck lumps may be treated with radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery,  or a combination of these treatments, depending on the type, stage and location of the cancer. For example, a chain of lymph nodes may need to be removed — this is a  procedure called neck dissection. 

Recovering from surgery to remove benign neck lumps usually takes no longer than one to two weeks, during which time you should avoid manual work or heavy lifting. 

Recovering from surgery to remove cancerous lumps often takes longer depending on the extent of surgery needed and the progress of your cancer. 

Author biography

Mr Navin Mani is a Consultant Otolaryngologist and Head, Neck and Thyroid Surgeon at Spire Manchester Hospital and NHS Manchester Royal Infirmary. He specialises in general ENT conditions, voice and throat problems, specialist thyroid and parathyroid surgery, salivary gland and neck lumps, and head and neck oncology. In collaboration with a team of specialists, Mr Mani is also part of the dedicated Reflux Clinic at Spire Manchester Hospital.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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