The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells throughout the body.
The lymphatic system primarily consists of lymphatic vessels, which are similar to the veins and capillaries of the circulatory system. The containers are connected to lymph nodes, where the lymph is filtered. The tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and thymus are all part of the lymphatic system.
There are hundreds of lymph nodes in the human body. They are located deep inside the body, such as around the lungs and heart, or closer to the surface, such as under the arm or groin, according to the American Cancer Society. The lymph nodes are found from the head to around the knee area.
The spleen, which is located on the left side of the body just above the kidney, is the largest lymphatic organ, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). The spleen acts as a blood filter; it controls the number of red blood cells and blood storage in the body and helps to fight infection.
If the spleen detects potentially dangerous bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms in the blood, it — along with the lymph nodes — creates white blood cells called lymphocytes, which act as defenders against invaders. The lymphocytes produce antibodies to kill foreign microorganisms and stop infections from spreading. Humans can live without a spleen, although people who have lost their spleen to disease or injury are more prone to infections.
The thymus is located in the chest just above the heart. This small organ stores immature lymphocytes (specialized white blood cells) and prepares them to become active T cells, which help destroy infected or cancerous cells.
Tonsils are large clusters of lymphatic cells found in the pharynx. They sometimes become infected, and although tonsillectomies occur much less frequently today than they did in the 1950s, it is still among the most common operations performed and typically follows frequent throat infections.
Lymph is a clear and colorless fluid; the word “lymph” comes from the Latin word lympha, which means “connected to water,” according to the National Lymphadema Network.
Plasma leaves the body’s cells once it has delivered its nutrients and removed debris. Most of this fluid returns to the venous circulation through tiny blood vessels called venules and continues as venous blood. The remainder becomes lymph.
Unlike blood, which flows throughout the body in a continuous loop, lymph flows in only one direction — upward toward the neck. Lymphatic vessels connect to two subclavian veins, which are located on either side of the neck near the collarbones, and the fluid re-enters the circulatory system.
Diseases and disorders of the lymphatic system are typically treated by immunologists. Vascular surgeons, dermatologists, oncologists, and physiatrists also get involved in the treatment of various lymphatic ailments. There are also lymphedema therapists who specialize in the manual drainage of the lymphatic system. The most common diseases of the lymphatic system are enlargement of the lymph nodes (also known as lymphadenopathy), swelling due to lymph node blockage (also known as lymphedema) and cancers involving the lymphatic system.
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