Cervical lymphadenopathy:

Cervical nodes drain the tongue, external ear, parotid gland, and deeper structures of the neck, including the larynx, thyroid, and trachea. Inflammation or direct infection of these areas causes subsequent engorgement and hyperplasia of their respective node groups. Adenopathy is most common in cervical nodes in children and is usually related to infectious etiologies. Lymphadenopathy posterior to the sternocleidomastoid is typically a more ominous finding, with a higher risk of serious underlying disease.

Infectious etiologies

Cervical adenopathy is a common feature of many viral infections.

Infectious mononucleosis often manifests with posterior and anterior cervical adenopathy. Firm tender nodes that are not warm or erythematous characterize this lymph node enlargement.

Other viral causes of cervical lymphadenopathy include adenovirus, herpesvirus, coxsackievirus, and CMV.

In herpes gingivostomatitis, impressive submandibular and submental adenopathy reflects the amount of oral involvement.

Bacterial infections cause cervical adenopathy by causing the draining nodes to respond to local infection or by the infection localizing within the node itself as a lymphadenitis. Bacterial infection often results in enlarged lymph nodes that are warm, erythematous, and tender.

Localized cervical lymphadenitis typically begins as enlarged, tender, and then fluctuant nodes. The appropriate management of a suppurative lymph node includes both antibiotics and incision and drainage. Antibiotic therapy should always include coverage for Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes.

In patients with cervical adenopathy, determine whether the patient has had recent or ongoing sore throat or ear pain. Examine the oropharynx, paying special attention to the posterior pharynx and the dentition. The classic manifestation of group A streptococcal pharyngitis is sore throat, fever, and anterior cervical lymphadenopathy. Other streptococcal infections causing cervical adenopathy include otitis media, impetigo, and cellulitis.
Atypical mycobacteria cause subacute cervical lymphadenitis, with nodes that are large and indurated but not tender. The only definitive cure is removal of the infected node.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis may manifest with a suppurative lymph node identical to that of atypical mycobacterium. Intradermal skin testing may be equivocal. A biopsy may be necessary to establish the diagnosis.
Catscratch disease, caused by Bartonella henselae, presents with subacute lymphadenopathy often in the cervical region. The disease develops after the infected pet (usually a kitten) inoculates the host, usually through a scratch. Approximately 30 days later, fever, headache, and malaise develop, along with adenopathy that is often tender. Several lymph node chains may be involved. Suppurative adenopathy occurs in 10-35% of patients. Antibiotic therapy has not been shown to shorten the course.

Noninfectious etiologies


Malignant childhood tumors develop in the head and neck region in one quarter of cases. In the first 6 years of life, neuroblastoma, leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and rhabdomyosarcoma (in order of decreasing frequency) are most common in the head and neck region. In children older than 6 years, Hodgkin disease and non-Hodgkin lymphoma both predominate. Children with Hodgkin disease present with cervical adenopathy in 80-90% of cases as opposed to 40% of those with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Kawasaki disease is an important cause of cervical adenopathy. These children have fever for at least 5 days, and cervical lymphadenopathy is one of the 5 diagnostic criteria (of which 4 are necessary to establish the diagnosis).