Your salivary glands produce saliva, which keeps your mouth moist, helps protect your teeth from decay, and helps you digest food. The salivary glands are small and are located around the inner linings of your mouth, lips, and cheeks.
A number of diseases can affect your salivary glands. These range from cancerous tumors to Sjögren’s syndrome. While some go away with time or antibiotics, others require more serious treatments, including surgery.
You have three major salivary glands: the parotid, submandibular, and sublingual glands. They are responsible for producing saliva. The most common cause of salivary gland problems is blocked glands, which can cause painful symptoms.
Sialolithiasis and sialadenitis are problems that can occur in the salivary glands. Sialolithiasis occurs when stones made of calcium form in the salivary glands. These stones can block the glands, which can partially or completely stop the flow of saliva.
Sialadenitis is an infection in a salivary gland. It often results from stones blocking the gland. Staph or strep bacteria can cause this infection. Older adults and infants are most likely to develop this condition.
Sjögren’s (pronounced SHOW-grins) syndrome is another common salivary gland disorder. It occurs when white blood cells target healthy cells in moisture-producing glands. Examples include the salivary, sweat, and oil glands. This condition most commonly affects women with autoimmune disorders, such as lupus.
Viruses also can affect the salivary glands. These include the flu, mumps, Coxsackie virus, echovirus, and cytomegalovirus.
Cancerous and noncancerous tumors may develop in the salivary glands as well. Cancerous tumors of the salivary glands are rare, and typically occur between ages 50 and 60, according to Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
Noncancerous tumors that can affect the parotid glands include pleomorphic adenomas and Warthin’s tumors. Benign pleomorphic adenomas can also grow in the submandibular gland and the minor salivary glands. This is rare.
For sialolithiasis, symptoms include:
- painful lump under the tongue
- pain that increases when eating
Sialadenitis symptoms include:
- lump in your cheek or under your chin
- pus that drains into your mouth
- strong or foul-smelling pus
Cysts that grow in your salivary glands can cause:
- yellow mucus drainage upon bursting
- difficulty eating
- trouble speaking
- difficulty swallowing
Viral infections, such as mumps, in the salivary glands can cause:
- muscle aches
- joint pain
- swelling on both sides of the face
Sjögren’s syndrome symptoms include:
- dry mouth
- tooth decay
- sores in the mouth
- joint pain
- dry cough
- unexplained fatigue
- swollen salivary glands
- frequent salivary gland infections
- dry eyes
Your physician will recommend testing based on your medical history and a physical exam.
Your doctor must see the blockage to diagnose a salivary gland obstruction. Taking a dental X-ray of the affected area can help to pinpoint the obstruction. A head and neck surgeon can then use anesthesia to numb the salivary gland opening and free any blockage.
If your physician needs to finely target the salivary glands, an MRI or CT scan can provide more in-depth images. Also, a biopsy to remove salivary gland tissue can aid in diagnosis, particularly if your physician suspects you may have an autoimmune disorder that affects your salivary glands.
Treatment for salivary gland disorders depends upon the disease type and how advanced it is.
For example, if you have a mass in your salivary gland, your physician may recommend surgery to remove the mass or the gland itself. If the mass is cancerous, you may need radiation treatments to kill off cancerous cells. These treatments will not typically be started until your body has had time to heal. This is typically four to six weeks after surgery.
Radiation treatments to the neck can cause dry mouth, which can be uncomfortable and affect digestion. Your physician may recommend drinking more fluids and avoiding foods high in sodium.
If the salivary gland mass is not cancerous, radiation may not be required. A mass that does not cause symptoms may be treated with conservative measures. These include special mouthwashes to relieve dry mouth.
Antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial infections.
Taking good care of your teeth is vital to successful salivary gland treatment. Brushing and flossing your teeth at least twice a day can help to prevent salivary gland disorders and tooth decay. You can keep your mouth moist by rinsing with a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of salt in one cup of water.