Hodgkin's Lymphoma - Causes

What is your lymphatic system?

Lymph glands - head and neck
Lymphatic system

The lymphatic system consists of lymph nodes (often called lymph glands), a network of thin lymphatic channels (similar to thin blood vessels), and organs such as the spleen and thymus.

Small lymph nodes occur throughout the body. Lymph nodes that are near each other often form into groups or chains. For example, in the sides of the neck (cervical lymph nodes), the armpits (axillary lymph nodes) and in the groins (inguinal lymph nodes). The diagrams above show the main groups of lymph nodes (lymph glands), but lymph nodes occur in many other places in the body.

Lymph nodes are joined together by a network of lymphatic channels. Lymph mainly consists of a fluid that forms between the cells of the body. This contains nutrients and waste products which go into and out of cells. The watery lymph fluid travels in the lymph channels, through various lymph nodes, and eventually drains into the bloodstream.

The lymphatic system is also a major part of the immune system. Lymph and lymph nodes contain white blood cells called lymphocytes and antibodies which defend the body against infection. The lymphocytes are made in the bone marrow. When they are mature they are released into the bloodstream and migrate into the lymphatic system. There are three types of mature lymphocytes:

  • B lymphocytes which make antibodies that attack germs (bacteria, viruses, etc).
  • T lymphocytes which have various functions including helping the B lymphocytes to make antibodies.
  • Natural killer lymphocytes which also help to protect against infection.

What are the causes of Hodgkin's lymphoma?

The cause of Hodgkin's lymphoma is not known but it may be more likely in some situations:

  • If you have a poorly functioning immune system (for example, if you have AIDS) your risk of developing a Hodgkin's lymphoma is increased. However, this only accounts for a small number of cases.
  • A previous infection with a virus called the Epstein-Barr virus (which causes glandular fever) may increase the risk slightly. However, many people have an infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, yet only a few will develop Hodgkin's lymphoma.

What seems to happen is that a cancer (such as a lymphoma) starts from one abnormal cell. In the case of Hodgkin's lymphoma, the cancer develops from a B-lymphocyte cell which becomes abnormal. The exact reason why the cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal. If the abnormal cell survives, it may multiply and produce many abnormal cells.

Hodgkin's lymphoma is not an inherited (genetic) condition and does not run in families. However, an identical twin of a person with Hodgkin's lymphoma has a slightly higher risk of developing Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The cancerous lymphocytes tend to collect in lymph glands (nodes). The lymph nodes then get bigger and form cancerous tumours. Some abnormal cells may travel to other parts of the lymphatic system. You may therefore develop lots of large cancerous lymph nodes and an enlarged spleen.

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Dr Colin Tidy
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
4883 (v42)
Last Checked:
08 July 2017
Next Review:
07 July 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.