Neck masses in the adult can be benign or malignant (cancerous). Malignant masses are discussed elsewhere. One of the most commonly diagnosed benign neck masses is an enlarged lymph node. Lymph nodes help to fight infection, so they will often swell up during an upper respiratory infection. Usually, these "swollen glands" are tender during the course of the infection. Most of the time, they will shrink down as the infection resolves. On occasion, enlarged lymph node(s) can become an abscess (collection of pus) which requires intravenous antibiotics and surgery.

Another common adult neck mass is a cyst, which is filled with fluid. Many cysts in the head and neck are congenital, that is, they have been present since birth. Despite their presence in the neck, an actual lump may not appear until much later in life. In fact, some congenital neck cysts do not get diagnosed until adulthood.

The most common benign neck masses are branchial cleft cysts, thyroglossal duct cysts, epidermoid cysts, dermoid cysts, lymphangiomas, and hemangiomas. These masses can cause a cosmetic deformity, as they bulge out from the neck. In addition, many neck masses cause symptoms, especially if they get infected. For this reason, surgical removal is generally recommended for most neck masses.

A needle biopsy of the neck mass may be done in the office or at the hospital if ultrasound guidance is needed for guidance of the needle placement. Your physician at Suburban Ear, Nose, and Throat may also order some imaging studies (CT scan or MRI) to assess the extent of the mass.