Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes: Causes and When to See a Doctor

Swollen Occipital Lymph Node
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The occipital lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system and are found at the back of your head. Because lymph nodes help in keeping your body healthy, they can become swollen if you have an illness or infection. The occipital lymph nodes at the top of your neck can also swell if you have a viral or bacterial infection.

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Lymph nodes, including your occipital lymph nodes, are usually about the size of a small pea or bean and in normal circumstances, can’t be felt. However, infections or disease can cause lymphatic fluid to build up in the nodes causing them to swell to a much larger size. You can usually feel swollen lymph nodes, and they may even be visible if you are fighting off an infection.

The location of swollen lymph nodes can usually give doctors an indication as to what kind of infection you have. That is why in certain circumstances, a doctor will feel the back of your head to check if occipital lymph nodes are larger than they should be.

In this article, you will learn about the various causes of swollen occipital lymph nodes. Because occipital lymph nodes can swell if you have a serious disease like cancer, you will also find out when you should see a doctor.

Where the Occipital Lymph Nodes are Located

Your body contains up to 700 lymph nodes and the most common area for them are in your armpits, neck, and groin. According to Dr. Benoit Gosselin, you have 3-5 occipital lymph nodes or glands at the base of your skull. These are located near the occipital bone which is found behind your skull.1

You can find the approximate location of the occipital lymph nodes if you put your hand just at the nape of your neck. In fact, if you think of an imaginary line going just between the base of your ears along the back of your head, your occipital lymph nodes will be in the middle.

Usually, you won’t be able to feel the occipital lymph nodes unless they are swollen for some reason.

Function of the Occipital Lymph Nodes

As with all lymph glands in your body, the function of your occipital lymph nodes is to keep your immune system healthy. The small bean-like nodes of your lymphatic system filter out impurities and harmful substances from your body. All lymph nodes also contain white blood cells that fight off infection.

According to the American Cancer Society, fluid from your head, scalp, and face flow through the lymph nodes at the back and side of your neck. If you have an infection, injury, or serious disease, fluid builds up in some of your lymph nodes causing them to swell. This happens because your lymph nodes are working hard to get rid of the “bad” cells.2

Dr. Wesley Norman from Georgetown Medical Center says that lymph nodes will swell if there is an infection in that area.3 Depending on the cause of infection or which area of your body is affected, lymph nodes can swell enough to be felt with your fingers. In fact, they may swell so much that a lump develops. Therefore, a lump on the back of your neck just below your skull could be a symptom that your occipital lymph nodes are swollen because of an infection affecting your head.

Symptoms of Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes

Usually, swollen occipital lymph nodes will be accompanied by other symptoms. These symptoms of swollen glands can help doctors identify the cause of the lumps at the back of your neck, in your armpits, or groin.

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Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that the first sign of swollen lymph nodes is tenderness and pain in the small pea-sized lump. Sometimes, a serious infection could cause the nodes to swell even larger.4

If you have a respiratory infection, bacterial infection, or viral infection, you may also have a runny nose, fever, and sore throat. Some viral infections like mononucleosis or immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis can cause your lymph nodes throughout your body to swell.

Usually, keeping your immune system healthy is the best way to prevent infections and avoid having swelling in your lymph nodes. After an infection, you can try my lymph cleansing herbal infusion to help flush toxins from your body or this three day lymphatic cleanse by Greg Ashby, an integrative health coach and functional nutritional consultant.

Causes of Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes

Now that we know the function of lymph nodes is to keep you healthy, let’s look at reasons why your occipital lymph nodes can swell into small lumps at the base of your skull.

Bacterial infections

Bacterial infections on your scalp could be a reason for swollen occipital lymph nodes. An infection on your scalp will cause toxins and debris to drain through the lymph nodes at the back of your head. The swelling is caused by white blood cells from your nodes destroying the infected cells.

The journal GMS Current Topics in Otorhinolaryngology says that if the occipital lymph nodes show signs of swelling, doctors will carry out an examination of the skin beneath the hair. Doctors say that bacterial infections that cause occipital lymph node swelling usually only affect one side.5

Also, bacterial or viral ear infections can cause swollen lymph nodes at the base of your skull.5 Along with a sore ear and swollen occipital lymph nodes, you may have a fever, drainage from your ear, or trouble hearing properly.

Fungal infections

Another reason for swelling in your lymph nodes at the top of your neck is a fungal infection. Fungal infections can commonly affect the scalp and cause your occipital lymph nodes to swell larger than their normal size.

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For example, the journal Pediatrics in Review reported that the fungal infection tinea capitis (commonly called ringworm) can affect the scalp and cause swelling in the occipital lymph nodes.6 Along with the swollen lymph nodes in your neck, you may have hair loss, dry scaling skin like dandruff, and yellow crusts on your scalp.

To help get rid of a fungal infection on your scalp and reduce the lymph node swelling caused by it, you can try using coconut oil and tea tree oil. The combination of these two ingredients creates powerful antimicrobial mixture that can help to kill off infections caused by fungi. In my article on natural ways to get rid of ringworm for good, you can learn how virgin coconut oil and tea tree oil, as well as other remedies, can be used to treat your ringworm symptoms.

Viral infections

Sometimes a viral infection could cause swelling in the lymph nodes in the occipital area of your body.

For example, the National Health Service in the United Kingdom says that rubella can cause swelling in the glands in your neck and head. There is no specific treatment for rubella and doctors advise plenty of rest to help the body heal itself.7

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Another viral infection that can cause your occipital lymph nodes to become enlarged is mononucleosis. Dr. Burke Cunha on Medscape says that infectious mononucleosis causes the occipital and preauricular nodes to swell.8 This infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus causes glands in your neck to become swollen and also gives you a sore throat. You may also experience fatigue, white patches on the tonsils, fever, and headache.

Cancer

Some cancers can spread to the lymphatic system and cause swelling in the occipital lymph nodes.

The China Journal of Cancer reported that cancer in the lymph nodes or lymphoma can cause hard lumps at the base of the skull. Although it’s not very common, cancer that spreads to the occipital lymph nodes can be caused by melanoma, cancer of the scalp, lung cancer, or thyroid cancer.9

A warning sign that you should have the bump at the top of your neck checked out by a doctor is if the lump is very hard and continues to grow in size.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is another type of cancer that can affect the lymphatic system. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can affect any of the lymph nodes in your body, including the occipital nodes in your head.

According to Dr. Colin Tidy on Patient.info, most cases of swollen lymph nodes are due to an infection and usually, the node swelling passes when the infection has gone. Dr. Tidy says that lymphoma causes one or more swollen lymph nodes, usually in the side of the neck, groin, or armpit.10

Other symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are bouts of fever, unexplained weight loss, tiredness, anemia, and having an all-over body itch.

When to See a Doctor if Occipital Lymph Nodes are Swollen

Generally, lymph node swelling should go away when the underlying cause has been treated successfully. However, swollen occipital lymph nodes could be a symptom of a more serious disease in the body.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic recommend seeing your doctor if you have swollen lymph nodes along with the following conditions:11

  • There are no other symptoms accompanying the lymph node swelling.
  • The lymph nodes have been swollen for 2-4 weeks and they continue to enlarge.
  • The lymph nodes feel very hard and don’t move when you try to move them.
  • You also have symptoms like sweating at night time, a high fever, and/or unexplained weight loss.

Read my other related articles:

Article Sources

  1. MedScape. Neck, cervical metastases, detection.
  2. Cancer. Lymph nodes and cancer.
  3. WesNorman. Anterior neck.
  4. MayoClinic. Swollen lymph nodes.
  5. GMS Curr Top Otorhinolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2014; 13: Doc08.
  6. Pediatr Rev. 2012 Apr;33(4):e22-37.
  7. NHS. Rubella.
  8. MedScape. Epstein-Barr virus infectious mononucleosis.
  9. Chin J Cancer. 2016; 35: 1.
  10. PatientInfo. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  11. MayoClinic. Swollen lymph nodes.
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One Response to Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes: Causes and When to See a Doctor

  1. Linda Miceli says:

    I have been treated for occipital neuralgia for 2 plus years. I was getting steroid shots in the back of my head. Sometimes they worked, other times not. I decided I did not want to receive them anymore. I am going to a wellness/chiropractor who took x-rays and told me I have very bad arthritis and my vertebrae is pushing into my muscles and nerves, causing the tremendous pain behind my ear up to the top of my head. I have been doing traction and stretching. After reading this article, I’m wondering, do I have a bacterial infection in these occipital nodes? A few years ago I was in the ER three times and told I had a bacterial infection. After that, I was diagnosed with leukemia – CML. The base of my head is very sore and I’m constantly icing and using heat for the pain. I’m thinking of contacting my family doctor and discuss this with her or should I contact my oncologist. I’m very concerned about this and wondering am I suffering and going through all of this for nothing when it is an infection?

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