The occipital lymph nodes are part of the body’s lymphatic system and are found in the occipital region of the head, which is located at the back of your skull. Lymph nodes are ovoid or kidney-shaped organs that are widely spread throughout the body. They are linked by lymphatic vessels as part of the circulatory system. Lymph nodes are major sites of B and T lymphocytes and other white blood cells, making them vital parts of the immune system.
Finding swollen occipital lymph nodes can indicate you have an illness or infection. This may occur in the case of a viral or bacterial infection. The location of a swollen lymph node often serves as a clue for doctors as to what kind of infection you may be suffering from. Swollen occipital lymph nodes can also be painful as swelling starts to compress nearby nerves in the area.
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Anatomy of the occipital lymph node
There are approximately 700 lymph nodes found in the human body, with the majority of them being in the armpit, neck, and groin areas. The back of your head, referred to as the occipital region, is where several lymph nodes reside to serve their function.
The occipital lymph nodes, as well as all lymph nodes found in the body, filter out impurities and harmful substances from the body. This may include foreign particles and even cancer cells.
During times of infection, lymph nodes will begin to release more lymphocytes—white blood cells—which usually causes them to swell up in size, giving them their characteristic presentation. Sometimes lymph node swelling may be due to the blockage of lymphatic vessels caused by an infection or abnormality. Once this pathway has been cleared by the body, the lymph node can return back to normal size.
Generally, the location of a swollen lymph node indicates the area of the infection with certain exceptions. A lump found on the back of the skull or swelling of the occipital lymph nodes indicates a probable infection or disease that involves the head.
Cause for swelling in occipital lymph node
Infections in the head or scalp
The most obvious reason for developing swollen occipital lymph nodes is an infection in the head. Lymph node inflammation is often tender to the touch and feels raised. Direct infection such as dandruff, lice, or ring worm may lead to swollen occipital lymph nodes.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
This includes infections such as HIV, mononucleosis (the kissing disease), and syphilis. Swollen lymph nodes are a common characteristic of all these conditions. Infectious mononucleosis, for example, affects the lymph nodes of the upper body and can cause them to become inflamed. It is called the kissing disease because the most common form of transmission is through the saliva.
Your tonsils are a form of lymph nodes that can become incredibly swollen, so much so that they have to be removed. Tonsils are located at the back of the mouth and at the top of the throat. They work in the same fashion as other lymph nodes found elsewhere around the body, helping to fight infection. Swollen tonsils can cause difficulty swallowing, ear pain, chills, and fever. If the infection becomes widespread, the occipital lymph nodes may also become swollen.
A common cause of sore throats, difficulty swallowing, and a lot of irritation and discomfort. Often, throat infections can be present with patches on the tonsil, hoarseness, and swollen neck glands. Bacteria and viruses are the main culprits of throat infections, which includes the likes of strep throat, diphtheria, and whooping cough. Throat infections can be another cause of swollen occipital nodes.
The ears are relatively close to the occipital region of the head, which is why an ear infection can easily affect the occipital lymph nodes. Ear infections can be caused by bacterial or viral causes leading to inflammation and discomfort in any structure of the ear. If not treated promptly, long standing ear infections can cause permanent damage.
An eye infection known as conjunctivitis can lead the eyes to become extremely red and watery with accompanying itching and irritation. Conjunctivitis may have either a viral or bacterial origin. Bacteria often affects both eyes with sticky discharge, frequently causing eyelids to stick together. Viral infections of the eye are typically characterized by red watery eyes and swollen lymph nodes.
Genetic lipid storage disease
A disorder characterized by excess fatty (lipid) substances in the blood stream. These fatty substances include cholesterol, triglycerides, and lipoproteins. Swollen lymph nodes can be an indication of poor removal of these fatty substances from the body. Lipid disorders such as this one can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease. While they may have a genetic lineage, lipid disorders can also be the result of secondary factors such as fatty diets or suffering from diabetes.
Transplant graft rejections
A transplant is the procedure of transferring cells, tissues, or organs from one site to another. It is commonly done with organs like the liver, skin, or even the entire heart. For a transplant to be successful, the donor and the recipient have to be immunologically compatible. If this is not achieved, the recipient may reject the transplant, leading the body to treat it like a foreign invader. This type of reaction can cause lymph nodes to be swollen in response.
A condition characterized by tiny collections of inflammatory cells called granulomas. The most common location for these granulomas are the lungs, lymph nodes, eyes, and skin. Sarcoidosis is considered an inflammatory condition that causes the body’s immune system to respond to an unknown substance. Currently, sarcoidosis has no cure.
Related: Cardiac sarcoidosis: Causes, symptoms, and treatment
Swollen occipital lymph nodes are seldom a feature of cancer, but may be present in cancers such as lymphomas (cancer of the lymphatic system), cancer metastasis from another part of the body, or be due to a cancer of the blood known as leukemia. Depending on the type of cancer, the lymph nodes may or may not be present with any pain.
Diagnosis and treatment for swollen occipital lymph nodes
Having swollen lymph nodes may not always be a cause for concern, but depending on the circumstance, it is worth it to have them looked at by a medical professional. Typically, swollen lymph nodes go away after the underlying infection has been treated successfully. However, if they remain for an extended duration and are accompanied by another symptom such as fatigue and weight loss, there may be a serious underlying condition you should have assessed right away.
Your doctor will generally get a full history of currently presenting symptoms to get a better idea of why you have swollen lymph nodes. Upon physical examination, the doctor will touch them to get a better idea of how inflamed they actually are. A blood test and possibly biopsy of the lymph node itself will reveal any abnormalities.
It is recommended to see your doctor if you notice lymph nodes with the following presentation:
- Having no additional symptoms with your lymph node swelling
- Having had swollen lymph nodes for two to four weeks and they continue to enlarge
- Hard lymph nodes that are difficult to move under the skin
- Additional symptoms like night sweats, night chills, fatigue, weight loss, and a high fever
There is no specific treatment for swollen lymph nodes. Treating the underlying condition is often the only thing required to resolve them. This can include the use of antibiotics to help fight a bacterial infection and the use of pain killers to help treat the pain.
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