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This chapter is intended to serve as a guide to the evaluation of patients who present with enlargement of the lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy) or the spleen (splenomegaly). Lymphadenopathy is a rather common clinical finding in primary care settings, whereas palpable splenomegaly is less so.

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Lymphadenopathy may be an incidental finding in patients being examined for various reasons, or it may be a presenting sign or symptom of the patient's illness. The physician must eventually decide whether the lymphadenopathy is a normal finding or one that requires further study, up to and including biopsy. Soft, flat, submandibular nodes (<1 cm) are often palpable in healthy children and young adults; healthy adults may have palpable inguinal nodes of up to 2 cm, which are considered normal. Further evaluation of these normal nodes is not warranted. In contrast, if the physician believes the node(s) to be abnormal, then pursuit of a more precise diagnosis is needed.

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Approach to the Patient: Lymphadenopathy

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Lymphadenopathy may be a primary or secondary manifestation of numerous disorders, as shown in Table 59–1. Many of these disorders are infrequent causes of lymphadenopathy. In primary care practice, more than two-thirds of patients with lymphadenopathy have nonspecific causes or upper respiratory illnesses (viral or bacterial) and <1% have a malignancy. In one study, 84% of patients referred for evaluation of lymphadenopathy had a "benign" diagnosis. The remaining 16% had a malignancy (lymphoma or metastatic adenocarcinoma). Of the patients with benign lymphadenopathy, 63% had a nonspecific or reactive etiology (no causative agent found), and the remainder had a specific cause demonstrated, most commonly infectious mononucleosis, toxoplasmosis, or tuberculosis. Thus, the vast majority of patients with lymphadenopathy will have a nonspecific etiology requiring few diagnostic tests.

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Table Graphic Jump Location
Table 59–1 Diseases Associated with Lymphadenopathy
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Clinical Assessment

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The physician will ...

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