Part of the immune system is the lymph system, which includes hundreds of nodes that are located throughout the body. They are instrumental in fighting infection, illness, and disease.

There are about 25 axillary lymph nodes that are located in the armpit area. They drain fluid from the breasts and surrounding area. They can become swollen, sensitive, or enlarged when there is a health problem, like a breast infection or cancer.

In the event that cancer is suspected, a biopsy of the node may be necessary. A 2011 study resulted in discovering that testing sentinel lymph nodes reduces the necessity of axillary ones being removed for a biopsy.

The Immune System Fights Off Infections and Disease

When the breasts or surrounding area have an infection and it will trigger the axillary lymph nodes to do their job and fight it off. This can result in painful and swollen nodes in the armpit area. It may be a simple infection like an infection that a nursing mother (When Mom Gets Sick: Minor Illnesses and Infections While Breastfeeding) might get or it can be a serious skin infection like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) that can become life threatening quickly if left untreated. Other causes of the swelling include the following:

After the infection has been treated and out of the body, the nodes will return to their normal size, which is about the size of a small bean. If the body is fighting off cancer, a biopsy will need to be done to determine if it has spread. The lymph node will need to be removed to do a biopsy. Axillary lymph node removal may be avoided by performing a biopsy on the sentinel one.

The Difference Between Axillary and Sentinel Lymph Nodes

The sentinel lymph nodes are the ones that are believed to be first ones affected by cancer because it goes through those first before traveling to the axillary nodes. The sentinel nodes are commonly the ones closest to a tumor anywhere in the body. The axillary nodes are only located in the armpit area. These can become very painful when swollen or enlarged when there is illness, infection, or disease present.

Treating Swollen Lymph Nodes in the Body

The cause of the swelling will need to be eliminated for the nodes to return to normal. Until that occurs, the swollen nodes can be treated to minimize discomfort. Options can be discussed with a health care professional. These options may include the following:

  • Warm compresses
  • Over the counter pain relievers
  • Rest
  • Loose clothing

When there is a diagnosis of cancer, especially of the breast, the lymph node will be removed to do a biopsy.

Biopsies When Cancer is Suspected

There is no way to do a lymph node biopsy without removing them and it is often done during another procedure or surgery like a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. When cancer is found in the nodes further tests will need to be done to determine how extensive the spread of the disease and to determine the best course of treatment. There may be some discomfort from the surgery and some side effects of the them being removed.

In the End

Axillary lymph nodes are just a few of the hundreds located throughout the body that are constantly filtering fluid.