Swollen Glands and Covid: Are they Related?

Short Explainer Video

Swollen glands are fairly common in patients who get infections. For example, a cold or flu may lead to swollen glands in the neck or under the jaw.

Swollen glands are not listed as one of the symptoms of Covid-19 as described by the NHS. However, it is important to be mindful of the causes of swollen glands and their management because swollen glands could be an indication of an infection or a chronic illness.

Given this, you may wonder whether swollen glands are a sign of Covid-19. In short, they can be a symptom, and sometimes also a temporary after-effect of the vaccine, but it is uncommon. 

What are swollen glands?

To understand what swollen glands are, we first need to understand what glands are.

A “gland”, also known as a lymph node, is a small, bean-shaped structure formed by a cluster of cells. There are hundreds of lymph nodes all around the body, and they are all connected by lymph vessels.

Lymph nodes are an essential part of our immune system and can filter the substances that travel through the lymphatic fluid. Immune cells also travel along the vessel, monitoring the appearance of any viruses or bacteria and preparing to fight against infection.

Therefore, a swollen gland is a swollen lymph node.

But why do they swell?

Causes of swollen glands

In most cases, lymph nodes swell when the body is fighting against infection.

Lymph nodes are essentially the main battlefield to fight infections. The neck, groin, and underarms are the most common areas where swollen lymph nodes usually appear

In most cases, swollen lymph nodes are caused by common illnesses such as cold, tonsillitis, and ear or throat infections. Sometimes, swelling can be caused by viral infections such as glandular fever.

Moreover, in some rare cases, swollen lymph nodes can be caused by more serious conditions, such as cancer of the blood system (leukaemia), or lymph system (lymphoma).

Do not panic if you find yourself with swollen lymph nodes, as they could just be one of the symptoms of an ear or throat infection. However, other symptoms, such as ear pain, a fever, or a sore throat will tell you that you might have an ear infection or tonsillitis.

How do you know if your glands are swollen?

If your lymph nodes swell you might feel a tender, and usually painful, lump near the site of infection. The size of a swollen lymph node can be the size of a pea or kidney bean, but sometimes can be even larger, reaching the size of a grape.

Usually, there are other symptoms accompanying swollen lymph nodes such as:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Fever

Altogether, these could indicate the development of an infection.

Are swollen glands in the neck a sign of COVID-19?

The main symptoms of Covid-19 described by the NHS are:

  • A high temperature – you feel hot to the touch on your chest or back
  • A new, continuous cough – coughing for more than one hour, or having three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual);
  • A loss of, or change to, your sense of smell or taste – you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different than normal.

It is believed that swollen glands are a rare symptom although there have been reports of people with Covid-19 experiencing swollen glands. The reason is that Covid-19 symptoms can vary from person to person.

In addition to the swollen glands experienced by some Covid-19 patients, it has been reported that the Covid-19 vaccine may in some cases lead to swollen glands.

Let's look at why that happens.

COVID-19 vaccine and swollen glands

Having swollen glands after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine is not a common side effect.

Common side effects of vaccination are:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Sore arm

Do not panic when you get vaccinated, as you are not likely to develop swollen glands.

It is understandable that when you read this, you might doubt whether it is still safe to get the Covid-19 vaccine. However, the advantages of getting a vaccine outweigh the side effects it may bring.

After all, these common side effects are temporary, and the vaccine can provide long-term protection against Covid-19 and can reduce the severity of its symptoms.

The action of vaccination is almost the same as the process of being infected by Covid-19. The two big differences are:

  1. With a normal infection that leads to swollen glands, you are infected passively; but, with vaccination, the substances contained in the vaccine trigger the same infection response on purpose.
  2. A vaccine only mimics a virus, but it is not the real virus. This is why we say the infection is under control: instead of defeating your immune system (as a real virus does). The vaccine trains your immune system so that the immune cells know, in advance, how to fight that particular virus or infection in the future.

Since a vaccine mimics a virus, it does cause your immune cells to respond as if there is a real infection in the body.

As the lymph nodes are composed of immune cells, the body’s immune cells rush to fight the ‘viruses’ within the lymph nodes. This is why your lymph nodes may swell following a vaccine.

Therefore, swollen lymph nodes, post-vaccination, normally mean nothing worrisome - it shows that the vaccine is effective enough to activate and train your immune system.

What to do if you have swollen lymph nodes?

Here are some tips for managing your swollen lymph nodes:

  • Get a good amount of rest
  • Drink plenty of water
  • If the swollen area is quite painful, you can also take some painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Remember not to give aspirin to children under 16.

The symptoms will usually disappear on their own within two weeks.

When to see the doctor

Go to see your doctor if:

  • Your swollen glands have not gone down within 2 weeks
  • Your swollen glands are getting bigger and bigger
  • The swollen glands are hard to the touch and do not move if you press them
  • You have night sweats, shivering, and/or a high fever for more than 3-4 days
  • Your swollen glands appear without any other symptoms or illnesses
  • Your swollen glands are just above or below your collarbone

FAQs

Why do some people experience swollen glands after vaccination?

As mentioned above, swollen glands are usually caused by the immunological response to an infection, in this case, by a virus. However, in rare cases, swollen glands might be a side effect of the vaccination.

Does it mean that my vaccine is not working well if I do not have swollen lymph nodes?

No, this is not the case. Having no side effects does not mean your vaccine is not effective. Usually, an antibody test is used to assess if a vaccine is still protecting you. However, there is currently no such test for this vaccine.

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Adina Zhao

Medical Bioscientist - Imperial College London Medical Bioscience BSc
Modules covered: Integrative Body Systems, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Chemistry of Biological Interactions.
Past projects: Investigation of the influence of amino acid mutations of in-cluster gene lmbU on LmbU protein transcription and translation efficiency in Streptomyces lincolnensis, Investigation of the influence of red fluorescence protein mCherry on the photosynthetic efficiency of Arabidopsis thaliana .

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