What is Hodgkin lymphoma (HL)?

Updated 10 Aug 2017

If you’ve got Hodgkin lymphoma (HL), your body is producing lymphocytes (a certain type of white blood cell that fights infection) which don’t work properly. These cells cluster together to form lumps in your lymph nodes (glands). These lumps usually form in the neck and head, but can happen anywhere you have lymph nodes.

What is Hodgkin lymphoma (HL)?


Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. When you have lymphoma some of your lymphocytes don’t work properly. Sometimes they aren’t developed fully (immature), they divide in an abnormal way, or don’t die when they should. These abnormal lymphocytes can build up in your lymph nodes, causing them to swell and form a lump. Swollen lymph nodes can be in a place where they can be easily felt (such as your armpits, neck or groin) or deep inside your chest and abdomen. The abnormal lymphocytes can affect how your immune system works, which can sometimes make you more likely to get infections.

Hodgkin lymphoma

There are two main kinds of lymphoma – Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In Hodgkin lymphoma, the abnormal cells are called Reed–Sternberg cells; these are always present if you have Hodgkin lymphoma. Any other lymphoma without these cells is called a non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Reed–Sternberg cells are a type of white blood cell called a B-lymphocyte that has become cancerous.

The most common place where patients find a lump caused by Hodgkin lymphoma is the neck or chest but they can occur anywhere in the body where there are lymph nodes and also in some organs. There are two main types of Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • classical Hodgkin lymphoma
  • nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma (NLPHL).

If you have been diagnosed with NLPHL, which accounts for 5% of Hodgkin lymphoma cases, you can get more information on nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma from Lymphoma Action.

Make sure to check with your specialist which is the right information for you.

Watch Dr Chris Hatton, Consultant Haematologist at Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, talk about how Hodgkin lymphoma develops.

What causes Hodgkin lymphoma?

Hodgkin lymphoma is quite rare, but there are still about 1,800 people diagnosed with it each year in the UK, so about 3 people in 100,000.

It’s important to understand that you can’t catch lymphoma, or pass it on to someone else. In most cases we don’t know what causes Hodgkin lymphoma, but there are some things which can make the risk of developing the disease slightly higher.


Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in people between 15 and 25 years, and over 50 years – but it can happen at any age.


In the UK, Hodgkin lymphoma is slightly more common in men than in women; we don’t know why.

Lowered immunity

You’re more likely to get Hodgkin lymphoma if you have problems with your immune system. This might be the case if:

  • you have HIV or AIDS
  • you’ve had an organ transplant and are taking drugs to stop the new organ being rejected
  • you have an auto-immune condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Epstein-Barr virus

It’s thought that people who’ve been exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever, may have a slightly higher risk of getting Hodgkin lymphoma. Researchers are working to find out more, as it’s not clear at the moment how exactly the virus is linked to Hodgkin lymphoma and by how much it increases your risk, if at all.

Family history

Hodgkin lymphoma isn’t a hereditary disease, though there’s some evidence that having a parent, child, brother or sister with Hodgkin lymphoma or another blood or lymphatic cancer can slightly increase your risk. We don’t know if this is because of a genetic fault or if it’s because members of the same family are more likely to have the same type of lifestyle.

Watch Dr Chris Hatton, Consultant Haematologist at Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, talk about who gets HL.

> Cancer Research UK has more information on risk factors associated with Hodgkin lymphoma

Your immune and lymphatic system

Your lymphatic system

Lymphoma is a disease that affects your lymphatic system. The different types of lymphoma depend on what types of cells are affected.

The lymphatic system is part of your body’s natural defence against infection, which is known as the immune system. Within your lymphatic system there’s a network of thin tubes called lymph vessels that run around your body.

The vessels collect fluid called lymph and return it to your blood. Lymph bathes all the cells in your body. It contains lots of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that fights infection), which carry nutrients and remove bacteria from infected areas.

Along the lymph vessels are small lumps of tissue called lymph nodes or lymph glands. There are many of these in your body. It may be possible for you to feel normal lymph nodes in the neck and groin, particularly if you’re slim.

If you get an infection when you’re healthy, these can swell and become tender, which people may refer to as swollen glands. As lymphocytes pass through the lymph nodes, they are changed and activated to fight certain types of infection. Your spleen is also part of your lymphatic system. It can do some of the same work as the lymph nodes. It also filters out old or damaged cells from the blood stream and helps to fight infection.

Your immune system

Your immune system is a network of cells, tissues and organs that protect your body against infection. It’s able to react quickly to infections it’s seen before, and lymphocytes play an important role in this. There are lots of different kinds of lymphocyte, including ones called T cells and B cells. These can be affected when you have lymphoma, which can increase the risk of infections. Your healthcare team can let you know about the ways to reduce your risk.

Information and resources on Hodgkin lymphoma

As the information isn't produced by Bloodwise, we can't guarantee the content of these pages.


Hodgkin lymphoma - general discussion of HL on Patient.co.uk [for healthcare professionals]

Hodgkin lymphoma risks and causes from Cancer Research UK

Overview of Hodgkin lymphoma from Merck home manual

Tests and investigations

Lab tests online - Department of Health approved website with details on tests and investigations

Symptoms and diagnosis of blood disorders from Merck home manual


Types of treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma from Cancer Research UK


Follow up for Hodgkin lymphoma from Cancer Research UK


Hodgkin lymphoma statistics from Cancer Research UK

QuickStats on incidence of blood cancers from the Haematological Malignancy Research Network

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