There are a number of causes for a head or neck mass to develop. These range from a simple cyst to cancer.
Most neck masses are caused by enlarged lymph nodes. The lymph nodes could become enlarged as a result of a nearby infection (such as a cold), a bacterial infection of the lymph nodes or an infection in the body. A nearby infection will cause soft, non- tender masses that return to normal after the infection has gone away. A bacterial infection will create tender masses. An infection of the body will cause multiple lymph nodes to enlarge. The most common causes of this type of reaction are mononucleosis (mono), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and tuberculosis (TB).
Cancerous masses are more common in older people and usually develop from cancer that has spread from the mouth or throat. These masses are not painful or tender but are hard to the touch.
Cysts are common in younger people. These masses are hollow and fluid-filled and usually painless unless they become infected. Cysts that develop in the skin are called sebaceous cysts.
In order to figure out the cause of a head or neck mass your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. The doctor is trying to figure out how long the mass has been there, whether it is painful and if you are at risk for any viral or bacterial infections such as HIV or TB. They will then examine the mass itself, looking to see if it is a hard lump. They will also check to see if there are sores or growths in the mouth and if you are experiencing any difficulty swallowing or hoarseness.
If the lump only lasts for a few days your doctor may not perform any tests. If the mass does not go away, a blood test, chest x-ray and a biopsy of the mass will be performed.
Usually, no treatment is needed for a head or neck mass. If the results come back and the mass is cancerous, the lump as well as the lymph node may be removed. If necessary, radiation may also be performed.