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Common Causes of a Neck Mass

Neck masses are common, affecting both children and adults. They also vary in size, shape, associated symptoms, and potential causes. That’s why you need the experienced team at SCENT - Southern California Ear, Nose, and Throat to sort through your symptoms and run the diagnostic tests needed to get to the source of the lump.

Read on to learn about the primary causes of a neck mass, beginning with the most common and ending with the least common but most serious.

Viral and bacterial infections

A neck mass, or abnormal lump, has many possible causes, but the most common is a viral or bacterial infection. When an infection causes a neck mass, the lump should go away when the problem heals.

In children, a neck mass almost always represents an enlarged lymph node, commonly called a swollen gland, due to an infection. Infections also occur in adults. But if you’re an adult and the lump persists beyond a few weeks, there’s a good chance it’s not a common infection.

In most cases, the problem begins with an upper respiratory tract infection due to a cold or the flu. Other common causes include sinus infections, strep throat, mononucleosis, dental infections, and skin wounds.

Mumps also cause a large mass as the viral infection takes hold in the parotid salivary glands.

Thyroid disease

The thyroid gland, which is located in the lower, front of your neck, can become enlarged and cause a noticeable lump. The thyroid conditions that can cause a neck mass include:


An inflamed thyroid gland may get large enough to create a visible lump. Thyroiditis most often develops in people who have hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland. Though less common, radiation treatments, thyroid infections, and some medications can also cause thyroiditis.

Thyroid nodules

Thyroid nodules develop when a solid or fluid-filled lump forms in the gland. Nodules are usually benign or noncancerous. In rare cases, they can turn into thyroid cancer.

As long as your nodule stays small, you won’t notice a lump. A large thyroid nodule, however, creates a lump you can see or feel.

Some nodules produce thyroid hormones, causing symptoms of hyperthyroidism. When this happens, you may experience one or more of the following:

Shortness of breath and difficulty swallowing can also occur if the nodule presses against your windpipe or esophagus.


A goiter is an abnormally large thyroid gland that causes a visible neck mass. This condition can develop due to hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), an iodine deficiency, or when hormone production goes into overdrive to make up for an underactive gland.

Thyroid cancer

Thyroid cancer affects about 44,000 adults every year. The thyroid tumor may or may not get large enough to become visible. Other symptoms can include hoarseness, swollen glands, difficulty swallowing, and pain in your throat or neck.

Head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers are more common than thyroid cancer, representing 4% of all cancers in the United States. Of the five types of head and neck cancer, four can cause a neck mass.

Nasopharyngeal, laryngeal, oropharyngeal, and salivary gland cancers can affect the following areas:

In addition to a neck mass, these cancers can cause various symptoms, such as a stuffy nose, hearing loss, ringing in the ears, headaches, and pain or numbness in your face.

If you notice a neck mass, with or without pain and other symptoms, book an appointment online or over the phone with SCENT - Southern California Ear, Nose, and Throat today.

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