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Neck Mass: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Neck masses are visible growths on the neck; of which nearly 80-90% of the masses are benign growths. In some cases, a neck mass can be a sign of serious underlying condition, such as an infection or cancer.

Neck MassWhat is Neck Mass?

A neck mass is a small or large noncancerous growth on the neck. Mostly these masses are seen in infants and young children. Some children will have congenital (present since birth) neck masses, which develop due to abnormal embryonic development. Most of the neck lumps become visible when there is an upper respiratory tract infection, such as common cold or sinus.

In some cases, the neck masses remain to be unidentified until they grow large and become painful. Cancerous neck masses are common in adults and rarely seen in children. Occasionally, cancerous neck masses are diagnosed as Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin disease.

What are the Causes of Neck Mass?

The common cause of a neck mass or neck lump is an enlarged lymph node. The lymph nodes contain certain cells that help to fight the infection and attack malignant cells. The most common causes of neck mass include:

  • An enlarged lymph node: Some of the common causes of enlarged lymph nodes are sinus infection, tonsillitis, dental infections, strep throat, and ear infections.
  • Salivary gland infection: An infection of the salivary glands can cause inflammation or lump in the jaws.
  • Bacteria: Some of the bacterial infections that can result in neck and throat problems include:
  • Tuberculosis
  • Cat catch fever
  • Peritonsillar abscess
  • Tonsillitis
  • Bacterial pharyngitis
  • Virus: Some of the common viral infections that lead to the development of neck lumps are:
  • Infectious mononucleosis
  • Viral pharyngitis
  • Rubella
  • Herpes simplex virus
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Branchial cleft cyst: It is a congenital disability which causes the development of lumps below the collarbone on one or both sides of the child’s neck.
  • Cancer: Sometimes, cancer is a possible cause of a neck mass. Adults above 50 years of age are at high risk for developing the cancerous neck mass. It could be due to lifestyle choices, such as drinking and smoking. Cancers that mark the presence of a lump in the neck include:
    • Hodgkin’s lymphoma
    • Leukemia
    • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
    • Thyroid cancer
    • Lung, throat, and breast cancer
    • Skin cancers, such as melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, actinic keratosis, and squamous cell carcinoma can cause a lump in the neck.
  • Thyroglossal duct cyst: It is a common type of congenital neck mass, which is usually detected when the neck glands become swollen.
  • Lipomas: They are the growth of fatty tissue under the skin, which can result in neck lumps. Lipomas are rarely seen in children.
  • Other causes: Some of the less common causes that develop neck lumps include:
    • Allergic reactions to certain foods and medications
    • A blockage in the salivary duct

Symptoms of Neck Mass:

The symptoms of neck lump or mass are caused by various underlying diseases and conditions. However, some people will not exhibit any symptoms. The common symptoms associated with neck mass include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain in the ear
  • Hoarse voice
  • Trouble breathing
  • Sore throat
  • Phlegm or blood in the saliva

Risk Factors for Neck Mass:

The following are the factors that would increase the risk of developing a neck mass.

  • Long-term use of tobacco and alcohol can increase the risk of developing mouth and throat cancers.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is known to increase the risk of cancers of the neck, throat, and mouth.

Diagnosis of Neck Mass:

A neck mass is often recognized as a lump and can be identified on palpation. To diagnose the neck mass, the doctor performs a physical examination along with a thorough review of present and past details of the patient. The doctor recommends the following tests to diagnose neck mass:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): A sample of the blood is collected to test and evaluate the overall health and rule out other possible conditions. Also, an increase in the white blood cell (WBC) count indicates an infection in the body.
  • X-ray examination: A chest x-ray is performed to check for the problems in the lungs, chest lymph nodes, or trachea. Also, the x-ray helps to identify neck cancers, which can be an underlying cause of neck lump.
  • Ultrasound scan: An ultrasound scan utilizes sound waves to produce images of the neck. It is a noninvasive test to helps evaluate the neck masses.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Depending on the symptoms, the doctor would recommend an MRI scan to produce detailed images of the head and neck. An MRI of the neck helps to diagnose the underlying medical condition that resulted in neck mass or lump.
  • Biopsy: During this procedure, the doctor will isolate a small fragment of the tissue from the lymph node and perform the microscopic examination. The tissue is examined to confirm whether the growth is benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Treatment of Neck Mass

The treatment of neck lump is based on the underlying cause of the condition. The treatment options for the neck mass include:

  • Medications: The doctor would prescribe antibiotic medications if bacterial infections are the underlying cause of the neck mass.
  • Surgery: Surgical intervention is one of the most common treatment options to treat the neck mass resulting from head and neck cancers.
  • Radiation: During radiation therapy, high-energy rays are focused on the cancer cells to shrink them. Also, it is used to kill the remaining cancerous cells after surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: During chemotherapy, drugs are injected into the body through the patient’s vein to shrink the tumor cells.


Neck Mass. MSD manuals.,-nose,-and-throat-disorders/approach-to-the-patient-with-nasal-and-pharyngeal-symptoms/neck-mass. Accessed December 8, 2018.
Neck Masses. Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. Accessed December 8, 2018.
Neck lump. Medline Plus. Accessed December 8, 2018.

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