Swollen lymph nodes, a common and harmless side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine, can lead to confusion during mammogram

Swollen lymph nodes, a common and harmless side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine, can lead to confusion during mammogram

When your radiologist looks at your mammogram, says Dr. Henry Krebs, he’s looking for a change.

“We’re looking at, is this different from what the patient looked like last year, is this different from what he looked like a few months ago,” Krebs said.

In early 2021, after the first Americans began getting vaccinated against COVID-19, Krebs, a radiologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Newnan, Georgia, says they began to notice a change: lymph nodes swollen lymphatics in the armpits of patients who had recently been vaccinated.

“Some of them were clinically palpable, meaning you could feel them under their armpits,” says Dr. Krebs. “Lymph nodes are one of those signs that say, ‘Hey, there might be cancer there. I mean, there are a lot of different reasons why lymph nodes grow and look abnormal. But, certainly in the back of our minds, excluding cancer is still number one.

So, he says, swollen nodes often lead to more follow-up testing.

“They looked scary, and a lot of patients, unfortunately, had biopsies,” Krebs said. “Now thankfully they were normal, but we hate to put patients through invasive procedures when they really don’t need them.”

Over time, Dr. Krebs says, they realized that the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines can temporarily swell the lymph nodes, usually in the arm where the injection was given.

So to avoid confusion, Krebs says, they asked patients to wait 4 to 6 weeks after their injection before having their annual screening mammogram.

However, he says, telling everyone to wait can take the same amount of time after their shots may not be a good choice either.

“Everyone is different in how your body reacts to these vaccines and how the body really returns to its normal baseline state,” he explains.

Instead of waiting, says Dr. Krebs, get your mammogram on time.

“Just be sure to let the technologist getting the imaging know that ‘Hey listen, I did this a couple of weeks or a month ago or whatever,’ just to put that in your file,” Krebs says.

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