Meet Your Lymph Nodes

Why they’re cru­cial


The Lym­phatic Road Trip

• Think of your lym­phatic sys­tem as a high­way of one-way lanes (lym­phatic ves­sels) on which fluid full of im­mune cells is pushed through your torso, limbs, and ex­trem­i­ties.

• Along the way are 600 “toll­booths”— pea-size, bean-shaped glands called lymph nodes that house more dis­ease-fight­ing cells.

• Where does the fluid called lymph come from? Your lym­phatic sys­tem runs along­side your cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem—each time your blood fin­ishes one lap through­out the body, 1% of its fluid is left be­hind in your tis­sues. This is ab­sorbed by nearby lymph cap­il­lar­ies and be­comes lymph, which then does its own lap through the body via the lym­phatic ves­sels.

• While on the move, lymph’s im­mune cells scan for in­trud­ers. When your body de­tects a threat—a bac­terium or a virus—it trig­gers an in­crease in the num­ber of dis­ease-fight­ing cells in the node in an ef­fort to thwart the in­fec­tion.

• Once lymph passes through the nodes, it con­tin­ues its trip un­til it reaches its des­ti­na­tion: the lym­phatic duct, a big ves­sel near the heart. There, it reen­ters the cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem and the process be­gins again.

Know Your Nodes

Lymph nodes are clus­tered all over your body but are most prom­i­nent in your neck, armpits, and groin. That’s why you may feel a small, firm lump when you’re sick. Don’t stress: A swollen lymph node is most com­monly a sign that your im­mune sys­tem is work­ing to clear your body of in­fec­tion. It swells due to an in­crease in im­mune cells and should re­turn to nor­mal within two weeks. On oc­ca­sion, an en­larged node may sig­nal a more se­ri­ous prob­lem such as an im­mune is­sue, a med­i­ca­tion re­ac­tion, or (rarely) can­cer—if a node is rock-hard and larger than a half-inch in di­am­e­ter and stays that way for more than two weeks, call your doc­tor.

Keep Your Lym­phatic Sys­tem Happy

Un­like blood, which is pumped body-wide with help from the heart, lymph re­lies on mus­cle con­trac­tion to pro­pel it on its jour­ney. That means you’ve gotta move. Aim for 30 min­utes of daily ac­tiv­ity, and try yoga: The deep breath­ing it em­ploys may sup­port lymph flow.

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