Swelling of the face or neck (lymphoedema)

After surgery for head and neck cancer, it is common to have some swelling in your face or neck. This usually goes away within a few weeks.

You are at greater risk of developing long-term swelling if:

The swelling happens because the lymphatic system, which normally drains fluid away, is not working properly. This is called lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema can also affect tissues inside the neck, such as the throat or larynx (voicebox). This can cause problems with speaking, swallowing or breathing. Lymphoedema may be worse in the morning and improve as the day goes on.

Always tell your GP or cancer specialist if you notice swelling in your face or neck. They can arrange for you to have tests to find what is causing it. Lymphoedema is usually treated by a lymphoedema therapist. Your GP, cancer specialist or specialist nurse can refer you to one.

Coping with lymphoedema

Skincare

It is important to look after the skin on your head, face and neck if you have had any lymph nodes in your neck removed. This can help to reduce the risk of developing lymphoedema. If you have been diagnosed with lymphoedema, looking after your skin can also help with the symptoms.

Lymphoedema can make your skin dry, itchy and more fragile than before. This can cause the affected area of skin to break more easily. This increases your risk of infection, which can make swelling worse.

Here are some other things you can do to look after your skin if you have, or are at risk of, lymphoedema:

  • Use soap-free cleansers that do not dry the skin.
  • If you shave, use a clean electric razor.
  • Moisturise gently daily with unperfumed cream or lotion.
  • If you get any cuts or grazes, wash the area carefully and put antiseptic cream on straight away.
  • Protect your face and neck when you are in the sun. Wear a hat and suncream with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
  • Use insect repellent to prevent bites or stings, as these can make lymphoedema worse.
  • See your GP straight away if you develop any sign of infection in your skin. This could be tenderness, redness, heat, discharge or swelling in a new area.

Treating lymphoedema

One of the main treatments for lymphoedema is a type of massage called manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). MLD encourages and improves the movement of lymph fluid from the swollen area. NHS lymphoedema treatment clinics often provide MLD. You can also do a version of MLD at home. This is called simple lymphatic drainage (SLD). Your lymphoedema or MLD therapist can teach you this.

Some people are given compression garments to help keep swelling down. They work by stopping fluid from gathering in the affected tissues. You should only wear a compression garment that has been fitted by a lymphoedema specialist. If your garment feels too tight or does not fit properly, it is important to tell your lymphoedema specialist.

Lymphoedema can affect your appearance and how you see yourself (your body image). It is important to get support from professionals and those close to you if you need it.

We have more information and advice about dealing with body image changes.

An image of Dawn Heal, a lymphoedema nurse specialist, and a colleague looking at a computer.

Lymphoedema videos

Watch our videos to find out about the signs and symptoms of lymphoedema and how to cope.

About our cancer information videos

Lymphoedema videos

Watch our videos to find out about the signs and symptoms of lymphoedema and how to cope.

About our cancer information videos