Diseases & Conditions
Neck masses are swellings that change the shape of the neck.
Neck masses are extremely common in children. The most common cause of a neck mass is one or more enlarged lymph nodes (see Finding a Lump in the Neck ). A lymph node may enlarge if it is infected (lymphadenitis) or if there is an infection nearby, such as the throat. Some neck masses are the result of a cyst (a fluid-filled sac) present from birth that is noticed only after it becomes inflamed or infected. Other causes include swelling due to trauma to the neck, inflammation of the salivary glands, or noncancerous (benign) tumors. Rarely, lymphoma and thyroid tumors or other cancerous (malignant) tumors are causes.
Most neck masses cause no symptoms and are of greater concern to parents than to the children who have them. However, infected lymph nodes or cysts are tender and painful.
Because many neck masses are caused by viral infections and disappear without treatment, tests are usually not needed unless a mass persists for several weeks. However, doctors may take a swab from the back of the throat to test for a bacterial infection, or they may perform blood tests to look for such conditions as infectious mononucleosis, leukemia, hyperthyroidism, or bleeding problems. Doctors may also perform x-rays and computed tomography (CT) to determine if the mass is a tumor or a cyst and to determine more precisely how big it is and where it extends. A skin test may determine if tuberculosis is a likely cause, and a biopsy gives the doctor information about whether a cancerous tumor is present.
Treatment of a neck mass depends on the cause. Antibiotics are useful for lymphadenitis and other bacterial infections. Masses caused by viral infections and swelling from trauma gradually disappear with time. Tumors and cysts generally require surgery.
Last full review/revision February 2003
Source: The Merck Manual Home Edition