The lymphatic system is a network of lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels and red bone marrow in the body. This system helps the body get rid of waste, toxins and other unwanted materials. Normal functioning of the lymphatic system ensures the transportation of lymph throughout the body.

What Are Lymph Nodes?

Lymph nodes are located throughout the body. They are soft and small, oval or round structures which are linked to each other by lymphatic vessels.

Lymph nodes are regional and each group correlates to a specific part of the body. Some groups of nodes are located directly under the skin while others are positioned deep inside the body. Areas where the nodes are more noticeable include behind the ear, in the neck, below the chin, in the armpits and the groin area.

However, even the most superficial nodes only become visible when they get enlarged or inflamed.  These can include swollen occipital lymph nodes behind the skull or the axillary lymph nodes in the armpit.

What Is Lymph?

Lymph is a clear fluid that contains white blood cells which have infection fighting potential. These cells attack bacteria and foreign substances in the blood.

Lymph also contains fluid from the intestines called chyle. This fluid contains proteins and fats and also helps in the transportation of fats.

The whole system is connected through various lymphatic vessels and nodes where lymph is filtered, cleaned and drained.

Why Do Lymph Nodes Become Swollen?

Swollen lymph nodes are a result of either a local or widespread inflammation. Occasionally, enlarged lymph nodes may be due to cancer.

It is easy to identify swollen lymph nodes as they become large in size and experience localized pain. There may also be some warmth and tenderness involved in the area.

There is a wide variety of infections that can cause lymph nodes to swell up. Common infections that can bring about lymph node swelling can be bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal. Of these, the most common reason for lymph node swelling is upper respiratory infections like the common cold.

Other infections can include anything from a strep throat, ear infection to mononucleosis or HIV infection. Sometimes the use of medication may cause lymph nodes to swell up as well.

What Are Occipital Lymph Nodes?

The lymphatic system of the head and neck has different groups of lymph nodes. Each group varies in size and number. Among these, the occipital lymph nodes are located next to the muscles between the neck and the head.

Compared to other types of lymph nodes, the occipital nodes are smaller, bean-like structures. They are responsible for producing lymphocytes or white blood cells that target germs, bacteria and other foreign substances when they get trapped in the nodes.

It is possible for occipital lymph nodes to get infected when fighting against germs. When this happens you may be able to see enlarged, swollen occipital lymph nodes at the back of the neck. The infection causes an increased release of lymphocytes by the glands which is what triggers the node size to increase. It also leads to inflammation of the nodes.

Plus the nodes will also become painful to touch. This is because the swelling starts to compress the nerves in the nearby areas.

Once the lymph has destroyed the foreign elements, it gets drained. The impurities and lymph enter the blood stream and get filtered out into the liver.

Causes of Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes

There can be a number of different reasons why you may experience some swelling in this group of lymph nodes. Primarily, the swelling indicates an infection in the body especially from the head or neck area.

This is because the lymph vessels leading to the occipital lymph nodes collect lymph from the occipital area of the scalp. For example:

Infections in the Head or Scalp

An infection in the body is a possible trigger, especially in the head or scalp. Debris and toxins that drain away from the scalp can cause the appearance of swollen occipital lymph nodes.

The nodes may also become inflamed and painful because of common head problems like dandruff, lice or ringworm.

STDs

Sexually transmitted disease like HIV, mononucleosis and syphilis can all cause lymph nodes to swell up in different parts of the body. Of these, mononucleosis can affect lymph nodes in the upper body and cause swollen occipital lymph nodes.

Infectious mononucleosis is also called the kissing disease. The virus is transmitted through the saliva by kissing but it can also spread by coughing or sneezing. The same can also happen if you share utensils with someone who has the infection.

Tonsillitis

The tonsils are lymph nodes located at the back of the mouth and top of the throat. Like other lymph nodes, they help filter out bacteria and germs to prevent infection in the body.

If infected, the tonsils become inflamed and cause problems like difficulty swallowing, ear pain, chills and fever and tenderness in the jaw and throat. If the infection becomes widespread then other groups of lymph nodes, such as the occipital nodes can also be affected.

Throat Infections

This can be another cause for swollen occipital lymph nodes. A sore throat makes it difficult to swallow and can be accompanied by a lot of irritation, pain and itchiness in the throat area.

When you get a throat infection, you may also experience other symptoms like a dry throat, white patches on tonsils, voice hoarseness and swollen neck glands.

Most throat infections are triggered by viruses such as the common cold or the flu. Bacterial infections of the throat can include a strep throat, diphtheria or whooping cough.

A number of environmental factors can also cause you to have a sore throat. For example, allergens such as mold, dander, pollen and other irritants can cause a throat infection and bring about swollen occipital lymph nodes. At the same time, factors like dry air, inhaling cigarette smoke and yelling too much can also distress the throat.

Ear Infections

Because of their close proximity to the ears, an ear infection can also cause swollen occipital lymph nodes.

An ear infection occurs when a viral or bacterial infection affects the middle ear. These infections can be unpleasant because of inflammation and fluid buildup in the middle ear.

There are two types of ear infections. The first type is acute where infections are painful but do not last for long. The second type is chronic where infections are recurring and do not clear up easily. Recurrent chronic ear infections can cause permanent damage to the middle and inner ear.

Symptoms of ear infections involve mild to severe pain and discomfort. There can also be a feeling of pressure inside the ear while some people will develop visibly enlarged lymph nodes.

Eye Infections

Conjunctivitis is an eye infection in which the eyes become extremely red and watery. You may also experience a lot of itching, tearing and irritation in one or both eyes.

Conjunctivitis can be bacterial or viral in nature. Bacterial eye infections affect both eyes with a feeling of grittiness. There will also be a sticky discharge emitted from the eyes. This can cause the eyelids to stick together, especially in the morning.

Viral conjunctivitis, on the other hand, can create symptoms that mimic those of a cold. Symptoms include red, watery eyes and swollen lymph nodes around the ear or neck.

Genetic Lipid Storage Disease

This is a group of disorders where there is an excess of fatty substances present in the blood. These can include cholesterol, triglycerides and lipoproteins.

Swollen occipital lymph nodes or other inflamed nodes in the body may indicate that this fatty material is not being removed effectively enough from the body. Such lipid disorders are an important risk factor in developing atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Some lipid disorders may be caused by genetic factors while others may be sparked by secondary factors like fatty diets and diabetes.

Transplant Graft Rejections

A transplant happens when cells, tissues or organs are transferred from one site to another. This is done when an organ such as the kidney, liver, heart or lung malfunctions and a donor organ is used.

However, the immune system of the recipient plays a very important part in successful transplantation. Since the immune system works really hard to combat foreign agents, it can reject transplanted cells or tissues.

The lymphatic system being an important component of the immune system can be affected by transplants that are not compatible. In this case you may notice a swelling or inflammation in the lymph nodes of the body.

The swelling indicates that the body’s immune system is having a hard time accepting the transplant.

Sarcoidosis

Sarcoidosis is another condition that involves a response from the body’s immune system. In this condition, there is a growth of tiny inflammatory cells in different parts of the body. These can include the lungs, eyes, skin and the lymph nodes.

Sarcoidosis occurs when the body’s immune system retaliates to an unknown substance. In many cases it could be something inhaled from the air.

The symptoms of sarcoidosis depend on which organs are affected. In some cases, there may also be a noticeable inflammation apparent as swollen occipital lymph nodes or other inflamed lymph nodes.

Sarcoidosis may develop gradually and produce varying symptoms that last for many years. For many people, initial symptoms may include fatigue, fever, weight loss and swelling in their lymph nodes.

Cancer

Rarely, the swelling in occipital lymph nodes may be caused by cancer. The cancer may originate from the lymph node itself or blood cells like lymphomas. There is also the possibility of cancer spreading from another organ in the body. For instance, throat cancer may spread and cause swollen occipital lymph nodes to occur. Or, lung cancer may reach the lymph nodes around the neck.

When lymph nodes swell due to a cancerous growth, they will not emit any pain. The condition is known as lymphoma which refers to cancer of the lymphatic cells.

There are two types of lymphatic cells in the body. The first are T cells and the second are B cells. In a healthy body, both types of cells work collaboratively for protection against attacks by foreign elements. The B cells are responsible for making proteins that get attached to pathogens while the T cells identify these marker proteins and destroy the attached pathogens.

Lymphoma develops when either the B or T cells stop working together or undergo unregulated divisions.

Symptoms of Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes

Swollen occipital lymph nodes can bring about a variety of symptoms like

  • Irritation of the lymph nodes
  • Itchiness of the scalp
  • Increased stress on the neck
  • Stiffness and pain in the neck

When to See a Doctor

Painful lymph nodes are a typical sign of the body fighting an infection. The resulting soreness will usually dissipate in a few days without any treatment. However, the lymph node itself might not return to its former size for a couple of weeks.

You should seek medical help if you feel that the lymph nodes experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Hardened nodes that seem abnormal or irregular
  • Lymph nodes that become red, tender or keep increasing in size
  • Nighttime sweating or fever
  • Sudden loss of weight

Diagnosis

When you visit the doctor, you will be asked about your medical history along with any associated symptoms. Your doctor may also wish to know how long ago the swelling started or if it developed suddenly.

Nodes that are closer to the skin surface are usually diagnosed by feeling the swelling. Deeper nodes, however, need to be scanned on imaging screens.

Determining a diagnosis may also require you to get blood tests or a biopsy of the lymph node.

Treatment

Since there is no specific treatment for swollen lymph nodes, the selected approach will depend on the reason for the swelling. Local discomfort caused by large nodes can be pacified with the help of a wet, warm compress. Swollen lymph nodes caused by infection will use antibiotics as treatment. Those which are caused by cancer will shrink after lymphoma has been treated.