If You Have Bumps on Your Neck, Here’s What It Could Mean
Lumps and bumps can appear anywhere on your body, including your neck. Here’s the 411 on what your neck bumps could be—and what to do.
A thyroid nodule
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your neck that produces the hormones that keep your metabolism humming. Thyroid nodules are abnormal clusters of thyroid cells that form a lump within the thyroid gland. They rarely cause any symptoms, but you may notice a lump on your neck while looking in a mirror or buttoning your collar, explains Minisha Sood, MD, an endocrinologist at Fifth Avenue Endocrinology in New York, NY. As many as 50 percent of us will have at least one thyroid nodule by the age of 60, according to the American Thyroid Association.
What to do: Don’t panic, Dr. Sood says. “This is very likely a benign condition, but seek an evaluation from your internist or endocrinologist to be sure.”
An enlarged thyroid gland
If you see a swelling in the front of your neck, it could be an enlarged thyroid gland, also known as a goiter, says Dr. Sood. “If there is a concern, tip your chin up, look in mirror sideways, take a sip of water, and see if there is swelling that moves up and down,” she suggests. Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition marked by the overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism) and may cause an enlarged thyroid. Likewise, an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) may also lead to an enlarged thyroid gland. People with Graves’ disease may experience a racing heartbeat, hand tremors, trouble sleeping, weight loss, and muscle weakness. Hypothyroidism is characterized by dry skin, thinning hair, and constipation, among other symptoms. Here are other ways to tell if you have a thyroid problem.
What to do: Your doctor will order imaging and blood tests to figure out what is causing the enlarged thyroid. “These tests look at the anatomy and function of the thyroid gland,” says Dr. Sood. Most of the time, thyroid disease is benign and treatable, she says. “The odds are in your favor that it’s benign, but it should be evaluated.” Factors that increase suspicion of thyroid cancer include family history and a history of radiation treatment to the head or neck, Dr. Sood says.
A fatty cyst or abscess
These are actually two separate issues and a dermatologist can tell the difference. An abscess may be red, hot, or tender and appear under the skin on your neck, says Jeffrey Fromowitz, MD, a dermatologist in Boca Raton, Florida. A fatty cyst, on the other hand, will not be inflamed. “They may feel hard or squishy, like Jello in a balloon.”
What to do: “Call your dermatologist, as cysts or abscesses may need to be drained, and if there is an infection, you may need a course of antibiotics,” he says.
A skin tag
Skin tags are small, fleshy growths that are usually connected to the skin by a thin stalk. They are common and benign, Dr. Fromowitz says.
What to do: “Your dermatologist can snip, freeze, or melt away skin tags,” he says. Do not attempt to remove them by yourself at home. Stop believing these 10 skin tag myths; some DIY home remedies can cause significant bleeding and complications.
Raised seborrheic keratosis (SK)
Seborrheic keratoses (SKs) can turn up on your neck or face, says Dr. Fromowitz. They can be tan, brown, or black and tend to have a waxy, stuck-on-the-skin look, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
What to do: Check in with your dermatologist to make sure the lesion is an SK. There are several treatments available if you are bothered by these growths. These include freezing, shaving, or laser therapy. An in-office treatment, called ESKATA, is a game changer, Dr. Fromowitz says. “It typically involves two applications of hydrogen peroxide, and we see great success without any scarring or hyperpigmentation.”
Yup, you can get acne on your neck, too, Dr. Fromowitz warns. “Unlike cysts and abscesses, acne can occur in and above the skin, so you will see it on the skin surface.”
What to do: “We treat neck acne more delicately than facial acne, as the neck can get more irritated,” he says. Your dermatologist will suggest an appropriate regimen.
Skin allergies aren’t like regular allergies: They turn up unexpectedly and are caused by a lot of weird things. (All the more reason not to believe these 13 skin allergy myths.) If the skin on your neck comes into contact with an irritating smell or agent, you may develop a skin allergy, Dr. Fromowitz says. “This often occurs from fragrances or harsh detergents, soap, or even certain fabrics,” he explains. You can also have an allergic reaction to nickel-containing earrings or necklaces.
What to do: Contact dermatitis typically occurs in people with sensitive skin. “If you have sensitive skin or are eczema-prone, stick to all-cotton clothing and use All Free and Clear or Dreft detergent when doing laundry,” he advises.
It’s important to cover all exposed skin with sunscreen, including your neck. “If you are taking medication that increases sun sensitivity, you may be more likely to have a reaction to the sun’s rays,” Dr. Fromowitz says.
What to do: Don’t forget your neck when you apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or above. Make sure you are aware of any medication side effects, and take extra precautions, he says.
This condition causes red, itchy, inflamed skin, and it can target your neck as well as the rest of the body.
What to do: Most importantly, see a dermatologist to make sure it is eczema and not a look-alike such as psoriasis, Dr. Fromowitz says. Subsequently, your doctor may suggest topical steroid creams or other medications to rein in the inflammation. Meanwhile, judicious use of a moisturizer can help you avoid flare-ups. Looking for an eczema cream? We’ve got you covered—just refer to our expert-approved eczema creams for all skin types.
Marked by red, scaly patches, psoriasis can appear on the back of the scalp or neck, Dr. Fromowitz says.
What to do: Psoriasis is an inflammatory disease, and a growing body of evidence suggests that it is linked to a host of systemic illnesses, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. There are many psoriasis treatments available that doctors can tailor to the severity of your psoriasis—including drugs that modulate your immune system and put the brakes on inflammation at a cellular level, he says.
This can occur anywhere on the body, and your neck is no exception. “Skin cancers may bleed, itch, or cause pain, and they tend to change with time,” Dr. Fromowitz says.
What to do: See your doctor for an annual full-body skin check—and schedule a visit if you notice something that doesn’t look right. “Early diagnosis and treatment make everything easier,” he says. “Ignorance is not bliss.” Therefore, don’t ignore these 12 silent signs of skin cancer.
Make sure to catch abnormal moles early. Removing them can be lifesaving. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends memorizing the ABCDEs of melanoma, the potentially fatal form of skin cancer:
- A is for ASYMMETRY. Notice if one half is unlike the other half.
- B is for BORDER. Keep an eye on ragged edges.
- C is for COLOR. Look for variations in shading within the mole.
- D is for DIAMETER. Note the size. For example, they’re usually greater than the size of a pencil eraser when diagnosed.
- E is for EVOLVING. Check to see if it looks different from the others or is changing in size, shape, or color.
Type 2 diabetes
A condition called acanthosis nigricans (AN) is marked by dark, thick skin on the sides or back of the neck (among other body parts), and it can be a warning sign of insulin resistance, which plays a role in type 2 diabetes, Dr. Fromowitz says. “The neck can tell us a lot about what is going on in the body.”
What to do: There are several lifesaving type 2 diabetes strategies to consider if you have, or are at risk for, the condition. Shedding pounds if you are overweight, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in regular physical activity can lower your risk for developing full-blown type 2 diabetes. Talk to your doctor to get a handle on what is going on. Together, you can come up with a risk-reduction or treatment plan stat.
There are also a wide variety of other issues that can cause lumps or bumps on your neck, including lipomas (a benign fatty tumor), a blocked salivary gland, certain kinds of cancer, swollen glands (which can happen if you have a sore throat or another infection), among others. If you have a mysterious lump or bump on your neck, see your doctor for a definitive diagnosis.
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- Minisha Sood, MD, endocrinologist, Fifth Avenue Endocrinology, New York, NY.
- American Thyroid Association: "Thyroid Nodules."
- Jeffrey Fromowitz, MD, dermatologist, Boca Raton, FL.
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Seborrheic Keratoses: Overview."
- American Academy of Dermatology: "What to Look for: ABCDEs of Melanoma."
- Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology, New York NY.