What Are Occipital Lymph Nodes?
Hundreds of lymph nodes make up the human body’s lymphatic system. Occipital lymph nodes are lymph nodes found at the back of the head and near the skull’s occipital bone. Similar to other lymph nodes, occipital lymph nodes are linked to lymphatic vessels, and therefore have an active role in the immune defense system.
Lymph nodes are integral sites for B and T lymphocytes and other white blood cells. They can be described as kidney-shaped organs often about the size of a small bean or pea, and normally you can’t feel them.
However, beneath the skin, sometimes lymph nodes can become hard, tender, swollen, and even painful when touched. It is also possible that a rash can develop.
The location of a swollen lymph node often informs the doctor of the type of infection. Discovering swollen occipital lymph nodes can be a sign of a serious illness or a bacterial or viral infection.
This article will further detail the number of swollen occipital lymph node causes, as well as symptoms and treatment for a swollen occipital lymph node.
Where Are Occipital Lymph Nodes Located?
The type of lymph node will depend on the location. There are around 600 to 700 lymph nodes in the body, which are often found in your armpits, groin area, and neck.
Where are occipital lymph nodes located? You have three to five occipital lymph nodes found at the back of the head and just behind the occipital bone of the skull.
Occipital lymph nodes will filter harmful substances from the lymphatic vessels that run through the scalp. As a result, these lymph nodes help remove impurities and harmful substances from the body, which may include cancer cells and foreign particles.
You can find the approximate occipital lymph node location by putting your hand at the nape of the neck. Picture an imaginary line from between the base of the ears and along the back of the head, and the occipital is in the middle.
That being said, it will be difficult to find the occipital lymph node unless it is swollen. This is often during times of infection where the lymph node will release more lymphocytes, which causes swelling likely due to a blockage in lymphatic vessels.
The medical term for a swollen occipital lymph node is lymphadenopathy. The lymph node will only return to normal size once the blockage has been cleared.
What Causes Occipital Lymph Nodes to Swell?
What causes occipital lymph nodes to swell? Lymph nodes will swell as a result of a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. The medical name for this is lymphadenitis, which occurs when one or more of your lymph nodes are enlarged due to inflammation.
Other times swollen occipital lymph nodes can be a sign of a throat or tonsil infection, a sexually transmitted disease, transplant graft rejections, genetic lipid storage disease, sarcoidosis, or even cancer or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
This section will detail further information about the various occipital lymph node causes.
1. Bacterial Infections
Swollen occipital lymph nodes may be because of bacterial infections on your scalp. This will cause debris and toxins to drain through lymph nodes at the back of the head, and therefore swelling will result.
Bacteria like staphylococcus or streptococcus will often cause bacterial infections, and lead the lymph nodes to become enlarged and swollen.
Bacterial ear infections will also cause swollen occipital lymph nodes, and this may lead to hearing problems, a fever, and drainage from the ear.
2. Fungal Infections
A fungal infection is another reason for occipital lymph nodes. A study published in the journal Pediatrics in Review reported that the function infection ringworm (Tinea capitis) can affect the scalp and cause swelling in occipital lymph nodes.
Other symptoms will include yellow crusts on the scalp, hair loss, and dandruff (scalp itchiness).
3. Viral Infections
Viral infections can also sometimes cause swollen occipital lymph nodes. Rubella, also called German measles, is a viral condition that can cause swelling of the glands in the head and neck.
Another viral infection-based cause of enlarged occipital lymph nodes is mononucleosis—also called mono. Epstein-Barr virus is a common cause of mono, which also produces symptoms like a sore throat, headaches, a fever, white patches on the tonsils, and fatigue.
Certain cancers can spread to the lymphatic system, and lead to swollen occipital lymph nodes. A review published in the China Journal of Cancer in 2016 reported that cancer in the lymph nodes, also called lymphoma, can cause hard lumps at the base of the skull.6
Although rare, thyroid cancer, lung cancer, cancer of the scalp, and melanoma can all lead to lymphoma. If the lump at the base of your neck is hard and continues to grow, get it checked by a doctor immediately.
5. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is another cancer type that affects the lymphatic system. This type of cancer can affect any of the body’s lymph nodes, including the occipital lymph nodes.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma will cause one or more swollen lymph nodes that are often in the armpit, groin, chest, abdomen, or the side of the neck.
Other non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma symptoms include anemia, tiredness, unexplained weight loss, a fever, no appetite, night sweats, and an itch all over the body.
A swollen lymph node is also a common symptom of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like syphilis, mono, and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). From these STDs, mono can affect lymph nodes of the upper body, and lead to swollen occipital lymph nodes.
Mono, also called the kissing disease, can be transmitted through saliva from kissing, sneezing, or coughing.
Tonsils are lymph nodes found at the top of the throat and the back of the mouth. Similar to other lymph nodes, the tonsils help filter out germs and bacteria to help prevent infections.
When infected, the tonsils become inflamed and cause issues like a fever, chills, ear pain, difficulty swallowing, and tenderness of the throat and jaw.
There is also a chance that tonsillitis can spread to other lymph nodes, and cause a swollen occipital lymph node.
8. Throat Infections
A swollen occipital lymph node is a common cause of throat infections, sore throats, throat irritation and discomfort, and difficulty swallowing.
Other symptoms of throat infections will include hoarseness, tonsil patches, and swollen neck glands. Viruses and bacteria are main causes of throat infections such as whooping cough, strep throat, and diphtheria.
Sarcoidosis is a condition where there is a tiny collection of inflammatory cells known as granulomas, which are found in the eyes, skin, lungs, and lymph nodes.
It is another condition where there is an immune system response to an unknown substance. Sarcoidosis symptoms will depend on which organs are being affected; however, in some cases, there may be swollen occipital lymph nodes, or other inflamed lymph nodes.
10. Genetic Lipid Storage Disease
Genetic lipid storage diseases are a group of disorders where there is an excess of fatty substances in the blood. Some of these substances include lipoproteins, triglycerides, and cholesterol.
Swollen occipital lymph nodes or other inflamed nodes may indicate that these fatty materials are not effectively being removed from the body.
It is important to note that these lipid disorders can lead to the development of heart disease and atherosclerosis. Some lipid disorders are genetic, while other may be caused from other factors like diabetes and high-fat diets.
11. Transplant Graft Rejections
A transplant is when tissues, organs, or cells are transferred from one site to another. Common organ transplants will include lung, heart, liver, or kidney.
A strong immune system is very important for a successful transplant. However, since the immune system’s job is to combat foreign agents, it may reject transplanted tissues or cells.
A common symptom of organ transplant rejections is inflammation or swelling of lymph nodes, especially since the lymphatic system is very much part of the immune system.
Symptoms of Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes
Any lymph node infection will release lymphocytes to help combat the infection. Additionally, white blood cells and other cells are also sent to help fight the infection.
Such a drastic increase of cells causes swollen occipital lymph nodes.
In addition to a swollen occipital lymph node, there are a variety of other common occipital lymph node symptoms:
- Lymph node irritation
- Scalp itchiness (dandruff)
- Neck pain and stiffness
Diagnosis and Treatment for Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes
How is a swollen occipital lymph node typically diagnosed? For diagnosis, your doctor will ask about your medical history and any symptoms you may be feeling. The doctor may also want to know how long ago the symptoms started, or if they began suddenly.
There will also be a physical examination to help determine the cause of the pain and swelling associated with occipital lymph node. Deeper occipital lymph nodes will need to be scanned with an imaging screen.
Other tests you may require include blood tests, a biopsy of the lymph node, or an x-ray of the chest.
This brings us to how a swollen occipital lymph node is treated. The treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the swollen occipital lymph node.
At the same time, it is important to treat your swollen occipital lymph node as soon as possible. This is because once an infection has spread into some lymph nodes it can then spread to other nodes and other parts of the body.
The first line of conventional treatment for swollen occipital lymph nodes is antibiotics, which have been shown to be effective in the early stages of the problem.
That being said, antibiotic-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant S. aureus have made it necessary to go with antibiotics with less resistance, or choose another treatment.
Painkillers like acetaminophen and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are also sometimes used to control pain associated with lymph nodes. But these drugs can produce various problems like severe allergic reactions, gastrointestinal damage, and increasing the risk of heart failure.
Other times, surgery may be necessary to drain a pus-filled lymph node—also called an abscess.
There are also a number of natural treatments and remedies for causes of a swollen occipital lymph node. Let’s take a quick look at what may help you treat a swollen lymph node with drugs or surgery.
Applying a cold compress to your swollen occipital lymph node may help reduce swelling and pain. Do it for about 10 minutes for a few times daily until swelling goes down.
Vitamin C is a key nutrient for boosting the immune system. Consider increasing the amount of vitamin C foods in your diet, such as broccoli, leafy greens like romaine lettuce and kale, and fruit like orange and papaya.
Garlic also contains compound like allicin, which are effective at treating fungal, bacterial, and viral infections.
Oregano oil is effective against viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. Dilute a few drops of tea tree oil with equal parts of coconut oil, and apply topically to the skin to help treat infections.
Other natural treatments of swollen lymph nodes include colloidal silver, Manuka honey, apple cider vinegar, and astragalus root.
For apple cider vinegar treatment, take two tablespoons in a glass of filtered water three times per day. You can also apply a soaked apple cider vinegar wash cloth to the swollen occipital lymph node.
When to See a Doctor
When should you see a doctor with a swollen occipital lymph node? Often, a swollen or enlarged lymph node is a minor problem; however, at times it can also be a sign of cancer.
As a result, it is very important to visit a doctor or other medical professional if you also experience any of the following symptoms:
- Hardened lymph nodes that seem irregular, abnormal, or have appeared for no apparent reason
- Lymph nodes that have been swollen for two to four weeks and continue to get bigger
- Sudden weight loss
- Nighttime sweating or persistent fever
- Lymph nodes that are tender, red, or increase in size
- Lymph nodes feel rubbery, hard, or don’t move when touched
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
Final Thoughts on Swollen Occipital Lymph Nodes
In summary, there are many swollen occipital lymph node causes. Some of these include bacterial, fungal, or viral infections; cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; STDs; tonsil or throat infections; lipid diseases, transplant rejections; and sarcoidosis.
Besides a swollen occipital lymph node, other common symptoms include lymph node irritation, neck pain and stiffness, and scalp itchiness or dandruff.
The most common conventional treatments of swollen lymph nodes are antibiotics, painkillers, and surgery to drain a pus-filled lymph node (an abscess).
Natural swollen lymph node treatments include a cold compress, vitamin C foods, essential oils like tea tree oil, Manuka honey, colloidal silver, astragalus root, and apple cider vinegar.
If you are trying natural treatment for swollen occipital lymph nodes, it may take a few days before you see results.
Article Sources (+)
Andre, D., “What causes a swollen occipital lymph node? Diagnosis and treatment,” Belmarra Health, Aug. 30, 2017;https://www.belmarrahealth.com/causes-swollen-occipital-lymph-node-diagnosis-treatment/, last accessed Dec. 4, 2017.
Kelly, B.P., “Superficial fungal infections,” Pediatrics in Review, April 2012; 33(4): e22-37, doi: 10.1542/pir.33-4-e22.
Yang, J., et al., “Occipital lymph node metastasis from nasopharyngeal carcinoma: a special case report and literature review,” Chinese Journal of Cancer, January 4, 2016; 35: 1, doi: 10.1186/s40880-015-0074-y.