Skip to Main Content


  • Reactive cervical lymphadenopathy and lymphadenitis are the most common causes of neck masses in children.
  • Laboratory testing is often not necessary in the evaluation of cervical lymphadenopathy as the cause can usually be determined by the history and physical examination.
  • An enlarged cervical mass that does not improve after 4 to 6 weeks needs to be referred to a subspecialist for further work-up.
  • Congenital neck lesions can present even after the first decade of life often with an infection or obstruction.
  • Supraclavicular lymphadenopathy in any age group is worrisome and should be investigated.


The emergency physician is often called upon to evaluate an infant or child with a neck mass. Most of these neck masses are benign and result from reactive lymph nodes caused by viral infections. On occasion, a patient can present with a significant neck mass of unknown etiology. The challenge is to distinguish between the pathologic lesions that need expeditious management versus those neck conditions that are benign but still cause a lot of parental anxiety. This chapter will discuss an approach to the pediatric patient presenting with a neck mass. Important elements of the history and physical examination will be highlighted and a discussion of the differential diagnoses and management options will be presented (see Fig. 17–1).

Figure 17-1.
Graphic Jump Location

Algorithm on the management of a child with a neck mass.


An understanding of the anatomy of the neck is important in generating a working differential diagnoses in a pediatric patient presenting with a neck mass. There are several anatomic classifications used in describing the location of neck lesions. A simple method is to divide the neck into two compartments or triangles with the sternocleidomastoid muscle as the common boundary (Fig. 17–1). The anterior compartment is defined by the anterior border of the sternocleidomastoid muscle, the lower border of the mandible, the sternum inferiorly, and a line extending from the submandibular symphysis to the sternal notch.1 Vital structures located in this compartment include the larynx, trachea, esophagus, the thyroid and parathyroid glands, the carotid sheath, and the suprahyoid and infrahyoid muscles. Several lymph node chains are found in this area, including the jugulodigastric chain that lies anterior to the sternocleidomastoid muscle. The posterior compartment is defined inferiorly by the clavicle, laterally by the trapezius, and medially by the sternocleidomastoid muscle. Structures that are found in this area include the subclavian vessels, cervical roots of the brachial plexus, spinal accessory nerve, and also several lymph node chains.


Knowledge of the anatomy of the neck and the specific regions drained by the lymph node group will help the clinician in locating the primary infection. The posterior part of the tongue, tonsils, sinuses, nasopharynx, larynx, and pharyngeal regions drain into the superficial and deep anterior cervical lymph nodes. The anterior scalp, ear canal, pinna, and the conjunctiva drain ...

Want remote access to your institution's subscription?

Sign in to your MyAccess profile while you are actively authenticated on this site via your institution (you will be able to verify this by looking at the top right corner of the screen - if you see your institution's name, you are authenticated). Once logged in to your MyAccess profile, you will be able to access your institution's subscription for 90 days from any location. You must be logged in while authenticated at least once every 90 days to maintain this remote access.


About MyAccess

If your institution subscribes to this resource, and you don't have a MyAccess profile, please contact your library's reference desk for information on how to gain access to this resource from off-campus.

Subscription Options

AccessPediatrics Full Site: One-Year Subscription

Connect to the full suite of AccessPediatrics content and resources including 20+ textbooks such as Rudolph’s Pediatrics and The Pediatric Practice series, high-quality procedural videos, images, and animations, interactive board review, an integrated pediatric drug database, and more.

$595 USD
Buy Now

Pay Per View: Timed Access to all of AccessPediatrics

24 Hour Subscription $34.95

Buy Now

48 Hour Subscription $54.95

Buy Now

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.