Although the finding of lymphadenopathy sometimes raises fears about serious illness, it is, in patients seen in primary care settings, usually a result of benign infectious causes. Most patients can be diagnosed on the basis of a careful history and physical examination. Localized adenopathy should prompt a search for an adjacent precipitating lesion and an examination of other nodal areas to rule out generalized lymphadenopathy. In general, lymph nodes greater than 1 cm in diameter are considered to be abnormal. Supraclavicular nodes are the most worrisome for malignancy. A three- to four-week period of observation is prudent in patients with localized nodes and a benign clinical picture. Generalized adenopathy should always prompt further clinical investigation. When a node biopsy is indicated, excisional biopsy of the most abnormal node will best enable the pathologist to determine a diagnosis. The cause of lymphadenopathy is often obvious: for example, the child who presents with a sore throat, tender cervical nodes and a positive rapid strep test, or the patient who presents with an infection of the hand and axillary lymphadenopathy. In other cases, the diagnosis is less clear. Lymphadenopathy may be the only clinical finding or one of several nonspecific findings, and the discovery of swollen lymph nodes will often raise the specter of serious illness such as lymphoma, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or metastatic cancer. The physician's task is to efficiently differentiate the few patients with serious illness from the many with self-limited disease. This article reviews the evaluation of patients with a central clinical finding of lymphadenopathy, emphasizing the identification of patients with serious illness.
The body has approximately 600 lymph nodes, but only those in the submandibular, axillary or inguinal regions may normally be palpable in healthy people.1 Lymphadenopathy refers to nodes that are abnormal in either size, consistency or number. There are various classifications of lymphadenopathy, but a simple and clinically useful system is to classify lymphadenopathy as “generalized” if lymph nodes are enlarged in two or more noncontiguous areas or “localized” if only one area is involved. Distinguishing between localized and generalized lymphadenopathy is important in formulating a differential diagnosis. In primary care patients with unexplained lymphadenopathy, approximately three fourths of patients will present with localized lymphadenopathy and one fourth with generalized lymphadenopathy (Figure 1).2,3
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