Neck masses are swellings that change the shape of the neck.
Neck masses are extremely common among children. The most common cause is one or more enlarged lymph nodes (see Symptoms of Nose and Throat Disorders: Neck Lump). A lymph node may enlarge for the following reasons:
Sometimes neck masses are caused by a cyst (a fluid-filled sac) that has been present from birth but is noticed only after it has become inflamed or infected. Neck masses may also result from swelling due to a neck injury, inflammation of the salivary glands, or noncancerous (benign) tumors. Rarely, lymphoma, a thyroid tumor, or another cancerous (malignant) tumor is the cause.
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.
Diagnosis and Treatment
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 do blood tests to look for such disorders as infectious mononucleosis, leukemia, hyperthyroidism, or bleeding problems. Doctors may also take x-rays and use computed tomography (CT) to determine whether 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 be done to check for tuberculosis, and a biopsy may be done to determine whether a cancerous tumor is present.
Treatment depends on the cause. Antibiotics are useful for infected lymph nodes and other bacterial infections. Masses caused by viral infections and swelling due to injury gradually disappear with time. Tumors and cysts usually require surgery.
Last full review/revision January 2009 by Robert J. Ruben, MD