Lymph Glands

What and Why? 

Lymph glands are the unsung heroes of self-defence — taken for granted when all is well, blamed for swelling and hurting when they are working hardest for you. There are thousands of them all over your body — many more than the better known sex-glands, thyroid, pituitary, adrenal and pancreas. Get to know and appreciate them.

Most people think of the arteries, capillaries and veins which contain their blood as a closed circulation around their bodies. This is anatomically accurate but does not adequately portray what is involved in nourishing and cleansing each cell in every tissue your capillaries pass through. To manage this, nourishing and aerated blood liquid — plasma — must ooze out of the capillaries at their high-pressure end, where they enter the tissue as the final branches of the artery to that organ. This fluid then disperses around the tissue and bathes every cell, exchanging its fresh contents for stale residues the cell no longer wants. The pressure gradient then gradually sucks most of this fluid towards the capillaries again — but this time at their low-pressure ends, where they are really tiny veins. Your body fluids actually spend most of their time adrift in your tissues in this way, and much less time flowing through the blood vessels.

A small proportion of this fluid does not return to a blood vessel directly after its wanderings but is drawn into a secondary system of blind-headed drainage gulleys called lymphatics, which pick up the spilt fluid and take it back to your circulation by another route. Lymphatics are very numerous everywhere in your body, but are less well known because they are small and transparent. The tiniest contribute their contents into larger and larger trunk vessels in just the same way that veins do, but they are never anything like as large. The largest eventually meet in the centre of your body and empty into a main vein on the left side of your neck.

This secondary circulation provides your immune system with an opportunity to sample what is going into the core of your body from the periphery, and to intervene if you come under any kind of threat. The lymphatic system washes your tissues clean of any germs that penetrate the skin of your mouth or nose, and any pieces of dirt that get into your body through any injury. Most of these are fortunately too large to soak into blood vessels in any case, but must not get any chance to do so. Material like this can clog the capillaries in your lungs, or else quickly infect the whole of your body.

So whenever injury or infection riddles a local area of your body with microbes or debris, your lymphatics take on greater importance and drain away a greater proportion of the tissue fluid — especially if tension in the area flattens some of the venous capillaries, effectively shutting them down. This would convey no advantage if the lymphatic system did not include means for filtering out all this unwanted material and making it harmless.

Your lymph glands provide this. They are small soft rounded swellings stationed at intervals along your lymphatics, often at junctions. They vary in size from a lentil to a broad bean, according to their importance and activity. They swell most when dealing with living microbes, since these actively resist destruction and arouse a full inflammatory response. This includes making a permanent stock of immune antibody tailored to that microbe, so that in future you can deal with it quickly and without fuss, wherever in your body it gains entry.

What can I do?

Advice to maintain and maximise your health

1. Swollen glands can often be felt on each side of your windpipe during a sore throat or cold. Usually they subside within a day or two, except in children who meet new microbes more often than adults and may go on making antibodies for several weeks. If they are thriving despite their enlarged glands, you need not worry for at least a month. Otherwise see your doctor.

2. Glands at the back of your neck are smaller and drain your neck, scalp and ears. Swelling of these glands is a feature of rubella (German Measles), but more usually follows infected ear-piercings, insect bites and scratches. Antiseptic there settles the gland quickly as a rule in these cases.

3. Glands in an arm-pit or groin drain the corresponding limb and nearby skin structures on your body, such as your breasts. Minor shaving wounds, sebaceous cysts, bad athlete’s foot, scratches and insect bites are common causes of swelling, but see your doctor if you cannot find any.

4. Glandular Fever is a generalized, prolonged and weakening illness with swellings everywhere. It is supposed to be a particularly aggressive virus infection, but it can happen with any generalized virus if your resistance is poor. Vitamin and mineral supplements to enhance your immunity help most people recover more quickly, but are better used to prevent it in the first place.

5. Lymph glands are an important line of defence when spreading tissue damage occurs for other reasons, such as cancer. In that case they demonstrate your body’s readiness to tidy things up and regain command of the disordered part: do not panic, help it!

But see the doctor too. You can be healed, and maybe you can be cured. You just have to find out why things went wrong, and set that right. There are many groups and treatment agencies available to help you, and you have the time you need. Remember — panic only spreads dismay, whereas wholesome action gives you fresh heart and a completely different outlook. Even at the very worst, you have nothing to fear but fear itself.


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