What Causes a Stiff Neck and Swollen Glands?

A stiff neck and swollen glands could point to an infection.
A stiff neck and swollen glands should be assessed by a doctor.
Meningitis may cause a stiff neck and swollen glands.
Fever, swollen glands, and a stiff, painful neck may be indicative of mononucleosis.
Swollen glands, also known as lymph nodes, are often the first sign of an infection or illness.
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  • Written By: Maggie J. Hall
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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Individuals experiencing a stiff neck and swollen glands likely to have an infection. Bacterial, fungal and viral infections generally initiate an immune response at the site of invasion, producing inflammation and swelling. Persistent symptoms or a high fever and headache may be signs of a serious medical condition. In rarer instances, the symptoms might be an indication of abnormal tissue growth.

Bacteria, fungi, or viruses causing an earache, sinus infection, or a sore throat can migrate deep into the tissue. There, they invoke an immune response from neighboring lymph nodes, commonly called lymph glands. The symptoms can occur with strep throat, oral yeast infections, and colds.

Lymph glands are small bean shaped nodes that exist throughout the body. The nodes connect lymph vessels one to another. The lymph vessels are also connected by blood vessels. Circulating throughout the lymphatic system are white blood cells, antibodies, and fluids. Together, they identify, mark and destroy foreign substances.

When white blood cells encounter foreign substances, some of them will attach to the invader while others will emit chemical signals that attract more white blood cells to the area. The combination of white blood cells and chemicals released into the lymph system cause inflammation and swelling. The nodes may become tender and swollen, large enough to feel through the skin.

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In severe reactions, the nodes harden. When this response occurs throughout the nodes on one or both sides of the neck, a person can experience a stiff neck and swollen glands. He might also have a fever and a headache.

Meningitis is a serious medical condition requiring immediate attention. The illness generally begins as an infection and eventually travels to the brain. Individuals developing this malady often develop a stiff neck and swollen glands accompanied by a nauseating headache and a fever exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius). Additional symptoms include drowsiness, a skin rash, and light sensitivity. Medical attention should be sought if a stiff neck and swollen glands persist for two weeks or longer and are accompanied by breathing problems, swallowing difficulties, or weight loss.

Certain types of cancer can also produce a stiff neck and swollen glands as metastasized tissue travels through the lymph system to other parts of the body. Similar to an infectious process, the cancerous cells cause an immune reaction. Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system may produce swollen glands as abnormal tissue grows. Leukemia, a white blood cell cancer, causes the development of abnormal blood cells. These cells can congregate in a node in the neck region, producing a stiff neck and swollen glands.

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illinois76
Post 4

I am also allergic to alcohol. I don't like alcohol and the only reason why I found out I was allergic was because one New Year's Eve with my family, everyone had a glass of champagne and even though I only took three very little sips, maybe 30ml, I started to feel hot and my face turned red. Then one day, my boyfriend and I went to a club, and he bought me a long island iced tea and I drank maybe a fourth of it the whole night, but of course I got hot and turned red. Then a couple of hours later, when I was in bed, my back started to itch so badly and we saw that I had hives. So yeah, I can't stand alcohol, I take a sip of pina coladas at parties, but that's it. Even Nyquil makes me feel hot.

discographer
Post 3

@simrin-- That's interesting. I never knew that people could be allergic to alcohol.

@anamur-- My doctor told me that swollen throat glands is a sign of infection. So even if you didn't test positive for an infection right now, you might have had one recently which caused your glands to swell. I think it could take a while for the inflammation to go away.

There are also autoimmune disorders where the white blood cells attack the body's own tissue because it doesn't recognize it. I have Hashimoto's disease which makes my body attack my thyroid gland. My thyroid gland is damaged now and can't produce enough hormone and I have to take synthetic hormones. The lymph nodes are a gland just like thyroid, so I'm sure an autoimmune system could cause it to swell too.

SteamLouis
Post 2

@anamur-- Yep, I had the same symptoms for years every time I had alcohol. Believe me, you are not the only one who feels that there is a connection between alcohol and swollen glands and neck pain or stiffness.

The cause of my symptoms was diagnosed just last year as dehydrogenase deficiency. It turns out that I can't metabolize alcohol and end up having an allergic reaction which causes my glands to swell. My stiff and painful neck symptoms are probably due to this in combination with dehydration. Alcohol makes you dehydrated and I've never been the one to drink much water.

I've quit alcohol and my symptoms are gone. I suggest you tell your doctor about this and ask to get an allergy test for alcohol. And lay off the alcohol until you figure out what's going on!

serenesurface
Post 1

I've been having these symptoms constantly for the past couple of months. I'm a college student and I don't have the best health insurance. But I did have blood test done and I'm not suffering from any infection. The doctor I saw could not tell me the cause of my symptoms but told me to get enough rest and hydration and check up in a couple of weeks if the symptoms don't go away.

I have noticed something new these past couple of days though, my symptoms seem to get worse when I'm tired and if I have alcohol. I got home after a party the other night and I couldn't sleep from the stiffness of my neck. It also felt like my glands were really swollen and my throat felt a little sore too.

Could alcohol be the cause of sore throat, stiff neck and swollen glands? I still have these symptoms mildly on days I don't drink but the fact that they get a lot worse when I do is kind of worrying.

Has anyone else experienced this after drinking?

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