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Can Swollen Lymph Nodes Be an MS Symptom?

Medically reviewed by Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Posted on April 10, 2022

What Are Lymph Nodes? | MS & Swollen Lymph Nodes | Talk to a Doctor | Support

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease that affects the central nervous system (the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves). It causes many different symptoms. Swollen lymph nodes are not a direct symptom of MS but rather generally a sign of an infection by a virus or bacteria like strep throat. Less commonly, swollen lymph nodes could be caused by conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or some types of cancer.

Some medications used to treat MS affect the function of the immune system and make the body more susceptible to infections. People with MS may experience swollen lymph nodes if they wind up with an infection while taking MS medications that suppress their immune system.

On MyMSTeam, the online support group for people with MS, members have talked about swollen lymph nodes.

“Has anyone experienced swollen lymph nodes in their neck?” asked one member. Another wrote, “The lymph nodes in my neck are swollen. Some days, more so than others. Does this have to do with MS?”

Although swollen lymph nodes aren’t typically related to MS, it can help to understand more about what lymph nodes are, why they become swollen, and when it’s time to see a doctor.

What Are Lymph Nodes?

Lymph nodes are a part of the lymphatic system, an important aspect of the immune system. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures that help the body filter cancer cells, infectious microbes, and harmful substances out of the blood.

Lymph nodes are primarily located in the following areas of the body:

  • Armpits (axilla)
  • Chest
  • Neck
  • Groin
  • Abdomen (belly)

Lymph nodes contain immune cells that help the body fight off infections. They support the immune response and activate white blood cells called B lymphocytes (or B cells) to produce antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that work to fight infections.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes may become swollen when they are working to fight off infections or due to inflammation from autoimmune disorders, injuries, or various types of cancer. Swollen lymph nodes (often referred to as lymphadenopathy) most commonly indicate a bacterial or viral infection. Less commonly, swollen lymph nodes occur in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Common causes of swollen lymph nodes include:

  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Strep throat
  • Ear infections
  • Mononucleosis (also called “mono”)
  • Tooth infections (dental caries)

“I have noticed that my lymph nodes have been swollen,” wrote one MyMSTeam member. “I had a few colds, so I thought it was due to that. In addition to the two swollen ones under my jawline, I just had a sore spot appear on the side of my neck, which I think is also a lymph node.”

MS and Swollen Lymph Nodes

Swollen lymph nodes are not a direct symptom of MS. People with MS, like the general population, may experience swollen lymph nodes. When people with MS have swollen lymph nodes, it is likely from the usual causes — like a viral or bacterial infection — and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with MS disease activity.

However, there have been questions about how MS might affect the lymphatic system and whether it could cause swelling of the lymph nodes. A research study from 2017 suggested a connection between swollen lymph nodes in the neck and MS. More research needs to be done on the topic to determine whether there is a possible connection between swollen lymph nodes and MS.

MS Medications and the Risk of Infections

Some MS medications could indirectly cause swollen lymph nodes because they can increase the risk of infections. In treating MS, neurologists often recommend disease-modifying therapy, which helps to reduce the number of MS relapses and slow disease progression.

Some disease-modifying therapy medications work by suppressing the immune system (immunosuppression), in an attempt to prevent it from attacking and causing damage to the brain and spinal cord. When the immune system is suppressed, people are at an increased risk of infections from foreign substances. Therefore, an increased risk of infection — which can cause swollen lymph nodes — is a side effect of some MS medications.

Medications used to treat relapsing-remitting MS that could increase someone’s risk of infection and potentially cause swollen lymph nodes include:

When to Talk to a Doctor

If swollen lymph nodes are caused by an infection, they will usually return to normal size once the underlying infection is treated or has been successfully fought off by the immune system. Swollen lymph nodes due to bacterial infection may be treated with antibiotics, and those that are symptoms of autoimmune diseases or cancer are managed by treating the underlying condition itself.

See a doctor about swollen lymph nodes if they:

  • Continue to get bigger
  • Are present for two to four weeks, or longer
  • Appeared for no clear reason
  • Feel very hard and do not move when you push on them
  • Come with other symptoms like a high fever, sore throat, unexplained weight loss, or night sweats

If you are having difficulty swallowing or breathing, seek medical care from a health care provider, emergency room, or urgent care immediately.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 184,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.

Do you have MS and experience swollen lymph nodes? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on April 10, 2022
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Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Elizabeth Wartella, M.P.H. is an Associate Editor at MyHealthTeam. She holds a Master's in Public Health from Columbia University and is passionate about spreading accurate, evidence-based health information. Learn more about her here.

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