What is an underarm lump?
An underarm lump generally refers to swelling or enlargement of one of the axillary lymph nodes located under the arm (armpit). Lymph nodes are very small clusters of immune cells that are an important part of the body’s lymphatic system, which is a part of the immune system. Your body relies on the lymphatic system to fight off germs, infections, and abnormal substances, such as cancer cells.
There are more than 600 lymph nodes throughout the body, but the ones most frequently enlarged or swollen are found in the neck, under the chin, under the arms, and in the groin. An enlarged lymph node under your arm can result from infection, malignancy, and autoimmune disorders.
Swollen lymph nodes are also known as lymphadenitis, lymphadenopathy, swollen nodes, or swollen glands. They can occur in any age group or population, but generally occur most often in children.
An underarm lump due to a viral infection often gets better on its own. However, some infections that are caused by bacteria or other pathogens need medical attention. An underarm lump can also be a sign of breast cancer. Seek prompt medical care if an underarm lump has been present for more than two weeks, is growing, or is red, tender, hard, or irregular in shape.
What other symptoms might occur with an underarm lump?
An underarm lump often occurs with other symptoms that vary in severity depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. For example, an underarm lump due to an infectious disease may be sore and painful to touch and occur with a fever and body aches.
Symptoms that may occur along with an underarm lump
An underarm lump may occur with other symptoms including:
Swelling of other lymph nodes
Unexplained bruising or other bleeding symptoms
Unexplained loss of appetite
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
An underarm lump that occurs with breast pain, a breast lump, or other changes in the breast may be a symptom of breast cancer or a breast infection. Seek prompt medical care if you think you have symptoms of breast cancer.
In some cases, an underarm lump may occur with symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have these serious symptoms:
What causes an underarm lump?
The most common cause of an underarm lump is a localized infection in the breast, arm, or the armpit itself, such as folliculitis due to an infected hair follicle. Immune system disorders and some types of cancer, such as breast cancer, can also lead to an underarm lump due to swollen lymph nodes.
Infectious causes of an underarm lump
An underarm lump caused by a bacterial infection can be associated with serious and potentially life-threatening complications if the infection is not treated promptly with antibiotics. Potential infectious causes of an underarm lump include:
Abscess (infected pocket of tissue)
Bacterial infection, such as a streptococcal or staphylococcal infection
Cat scratch fever (bacterial infection from being scratched or bitten by a cat that carries the bacteria)
Chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus infection)
Folliculitis (infected or inflamed hair follicle)
Lymphadenitis (bacterial infection of the lymph nodes)
Mastitis (breast tissue infection)
Mononucleosis (viral infection)
Shingles (varicella-zoster virus infection)
- Vaccination for various viral diseases, including measles, mumps and rubella
Autoimmune diseases that can cause an underarm lump
An underarm lump can also be caused by diseases in which the immune system attacks healthy tissues in the body (autoimmune diseases) such as:
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
Other noninfectious causes of an underarm lump
An underarm lump can also be caused by noninfectious disorders such as:
Breast tissue that extends into the armpit (this is a relatively common and normal condition)
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Lipoma (benign, noncancerous growth of fat cells under the skin)
Sebaceous cyst (blocked oil gland)
- Trauma or bruising of the underarm or shoulder
Cancers that can cause an underarm lump
The most notable life-threatening diseases that can cause an underarm lump, and swollen lymph nodes in general, are different types of cancers including:
Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Hodgkin’s disease)
Metastasized cancer that has traveled to the lymph nodes
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Questions for diagnosing the cause of an underarm lump
To diagnose the underlying cause of a lump under your arm, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will most likely ask you several questions related to your symptoms. Questions for diagnosing the cause of an underarm lump include:
Are you breast-feeding?
Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as a sore throat or fever?
Have you noticed any changes in your breast, such as a lump?
How long have you had the lump?
- Is the lump red or painful?
Viral infections that cause an underarm lump can often be treated with self-care measures at home, and the swelling will go away as your body fights off the infection. Self-care measures include rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
For persistent swelling, redness and pain of an underarm lump, it is important to seek medical care because these are symptoms of a possible bacterial infection. Bacterial infections will need to be treated with antibiotics and the treatment plan designed by your doctor. Left untreated, a localized bacterial infection can spread to the blood and vital organs and become life threatening.
In addition, untreated or poorly controlled lymphoma, leukemia, and other cancers can spread (metastasize) and become fatal. With time, an underarm lump and its underlying cause can lead to serious complications including: