Signs and Symptoms of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) can cause many different signs and symptoms, depending on the type of lymphoma and where it is in the body. Sometimes it might not cause any symptoms until it grows quite large. Some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Sweating and chills
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • Swollen abdomen (belly)
  • Feeling full after only a small amount of food
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath or cough

Swollen lymph nodes

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can cause lymph nodes to become enlarged. When this occurs in lymph nodes close to the surface of the body (such as on the sides of the neck, in the groin or underarm areas, or above the collar bone), they may be seen or felt as lumps under the skin. These are usually not painful. 

Although enlarged lymph nodes are a common symptom of lymphoma, they are much more often caused by infections. Lymph nodes that grow in reaction to infection are called reactive nodes or hyperplastic nodes and are often tender to the touch.

General symptoms

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma often causes general symptoms, such as:

  • Fever
  • Sweating and chills, especially at night
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling very tired
  • Severe or frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding

Symptoms from lymphoma in the abdomen

Lymphomas that start or grow in the abdomen (belly) can cause swelling or pain in the abdomen. This could be from lymph nodes or organs such as the spleen or liver enlarging, but it can also be caused by the build-up of large amounts of fluid. 

An enlarged spleen might press on the stomach, which can cause a loss of appetite and feeling full after only a small meal.

Lymphomas in the stomach or intestines can cause abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting. 

Symptoms from lymphoma in the chest 

When lymphoma starts in the thymus or lymph nodes in the chest, it may press on the nearby trachea (windpipe), which can cause coughing, trouble breathing, or a feeling of chest pain or pressure.

The superior vena cava (SVC) is the large vein that carries blood from the head and arms back to the heart. It passes near the thymus and lymph nodes inside the chest. Lymphomas in this area may push on the SVC, which can cause the blood to back up in the veins. This can lead to swelling (and sometimes a bluish-red color) in the head, arms, and upper chest. It can also cause trouble breathing and a change in consciousness if it affects the brain. This is called SVC syndrome. It can be life-threatening and must be treated right away.

Symptoms from lymphoma affecting the brain 

Lymphomas of the brain, called primary brain lymphomas, can cause headache, trouble thinking, weakness in parts of the body, personality changes, and sometimes seizures.

Other types of lymphoma can spread to the area around the brain and spinal cord. This can cause problems such as double vision, facial numbness, and trouble speaking.

Symptoms from lymphoma in the skin 

Lymphomas of the skin may be seen or felt. They often appear as itchy, red or purple lumps or bumps under the skin. (For more details, see Lymphoma of the Skin.)

Having one or more of the symptoms above doesn’t mean you definitely have lymphoma. In fact, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions, such as an infection. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Freedman AS, Jacobson CA, Mauch P, Aster JC. Chapter 103: Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Roschewski MJ, Wilson WH. Chapter 106: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2014.

Last Medical Review: May 31, 2016 Last Revised: May 31, 2016

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