Occipital Lymph Nodes Swelling: Causes and Treatments

The lymphatic system is an important part of your immune system. You have lymph nodes throughout your body and they help your body recognize and fight infections, germs, and other foreign substances. It is possible to feel lymph nodes in certain areas of your body, especially when they are enlarged or swollen. You can feel swollen lymph nodes in the neck, above the clavicle, in the groin and armpits, and in the back of your head above hairline. The lymph nodes above the clavicle are called supraclavicular lymph node, whereas the lymph nodes at the back of your head are called occipital lymph node. Keep reading to learn more about different functions and exact locations of occipital lymph node, and reasons why you may develop swollen occipital lymph node.

Location and Function of the Occipital Lymph Node

The bone behind your skull is called the occipital bone, and there are nodes near this bone, which is why they are called the occipital lymph nodes. They are not within the skull and as important for your body's immune defense system as other lymph nodes are. They are small, bean-like bumps and are connected by lymphatic vessels. These nodes produce a form of white blood cells called lymphocytes that kill bacteria, germs, and other foreign substances after they get trapped in these nodes.

When an infection develops, these lymph nodes will start releasing more lymphocytes, which will increase the size of the node. This is usually the reason why you may have occipital lymph node swelling. The lymph drains after destroying foreign cells. The lymph and the impurities then enter your bloodstream and are filtered out into the liver.

Causes of Swollen Occipital Lymph Node

Swollen lymph nodes indicate that there is an infection in your body. If you have occipital lymph node swelling, it usually means you have an infection in the scalp or in the head. Toxins and debris that drain from the scalp can lead to an infection and cause your occipital lymph nodes to swell. The size of your lymph nodes may sometimes increase due to cancer. However, the good thing is that if your occipital lymph nodes have swollen due to cancer, it will not spread to other parts of your body. The movement of cancer cells in this case is called metastasis. Keep in mind that cells from other parts of the body can metastasize to these lymph nodes.

Swelling caused by cancer is not that common. The swelling is usually the outcome of common problems like presence of lice, dandruff or ringworm. A cut or abrasion in that area or a fungal infection may lead to swelling of occipital lymph nodes. Infections in ears or throat may also cause swollen occipital nodes.

When to Worry

Occipital lymph node swelling should not always be a cause of concern. In most cases, this indicates that your lymph nodes are doing their job right and are actively catching debris or other foreign organisms. In this case, your lymph nodes should come back to their normal size after a couple of week. You should see your doctor if they remain swollen for more than 4 weeks or so. Seek immediate medical assistance if the size of your swollen occipital lymph node is actually increasing. You should see your doctor if you have swollen nodes with other symptoms such as night chills and fever. This may happen due to lymphoma, which is the cancer of the lymph nodes.

Here are some other situations when you should call your doctor. Talk to your doctor if:

  • Your lymph nodes are getting bigger and are red and tender.
  • Your lymph nodes feel irregular or hard, and are fixed in place.
  • You have unexplained weight loss with night sweats.

You should also consult your doctor if your child has a swollen lymph node that is larger than 1 centimeter in diameter.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit and What to Do

If you suspect something is not right and your swollen occipital lymph node is actually increasing in size, you should visit your doctor immediately. Your doctor will ask certain questions and perform a physical exam to find any specific symptoms of other underlying conditions, such as cancer. They may ask if the swelling appeared suddenly and if you are feeling any pain when you press on those nodes.

If they suspect anything serious, they may order a chest x-ray, lymph node biopsy, or liver-spleen scan. It is also common for doctors to order blood tests, including kidney function tests, liver function tests, and complete blood count. They will determine a treatment option after making a correct diagnosis.

Whatever the case, you should never prod or constrict your swollen nodes. Understand that you cannot get rid of them simply by pressing or prodding. It may even aggravate the whole thing and make you feel more pain. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible and follow their instructions for medicine intake to improve your condition.