A salivary gland infection occurs when a bacterial or viral infection affects the salivary gland or duct. The infection can result from reduced saliva flow or the blockage or inflammation of a salivary duct. The condition is called sialadenitis.
Your mouth is almost constantly flushed with saliva. Saliva aids digestion, breaks down food, and works to keep your mouth clean. It washes away bacteria and food particles. It also helps control the amount of good and bad bacteria in your mouth.
Fewer bacteria and food particles are washed out when saliva does not freely travel throughout your mouth. This may lead to infection.
You have three pairs of large (major) salivary glands. They are located on each side of your face. Parotid glands, which are the largest, are inside each cheek. They sit above your jaw in front of your ears. When one or more of these glands is infected, it is called parotitis.
Submandibular glands are located on each side of your jaw below the jawbone. Sublingual glands sit on the bottom of your mouth under your tongue. Additionally, hundreds of small (minor) salivary glands deposit saliva from ducts around your mouth.
A salivary gland infection typically results from a bacterial infection. Staphylococcus aureus is the most common. Others include: Streptococcus viridans, Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pyogenes, and Escherichia coli.
These infections are the outcome of reduced saliva production. This is often caused by the blockage or inflammation of the salivary gland duct. Viruses and other medical conditions can also reduce saliva production, including:
- mumps (a contagious viral infection that is most common among children who have not been immunized)
- influenza A and parainfluenza types I and II
- a salivary stone (crystallized minerals that form in the salivary ducts)
- a salivary duct blocked by mucous
- a tumor
- Sjogren’s syndrome (an autoimmune condition that causes dry mouth)
- sarcoidosis (a condition in which patches of inflammation occur throughout the body)
- dehydration or malnutrition
- radiation cancer treatment of the head and neck
- inadequate oral hygiene
The following factors can make you more susceptible to a salivary gland infection:
- being over age 65
- having inadequate oral hygiene
- not being immunized against mumps
The following chronic conditions also can increase your risk of developing an infection:
- HIV-positive or AIDS
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- xerostomia: dry mouth syndrome
The symptoms that indicate a salivary gland infection also indicate other conditions. The following list of symptoms may indicate a salivary gland infection. However, consult your physician for an accurate diagnosis if you experience:
- a constant abnormal or foul taste in your mouth
- inability to fully open your mouth
- discomfort or pain when opening your mouth or eating
- pus in your mouth
- dry mouth
- mouth pain
- face pain
- redness or swelling over your jaw in front of your ears, below your jaw, or on the bottom of your mouth
- swelling of your face or neck
- signs of infection, such as fever or chills
Contact your physician immediately if you have a salivary gland infection and suffer an increased fever, trouble breathing or swallowing, or symptoms that worsen. Your symptoms may require emergency treatment.
Complications of a salivary gland infection are possible, but uncommon. In cases where the infection is untreated, pus can collect, forming an abscess in the salivary gland.
Salivary gland infection caused by a benign tumor may cause an enlargement of the glands. Malignant (cancerous) tumors can grow quickly and cause loss of movement in the affected side of the face. This can impair part or all of the area.
In cases where parotitis recurs, severe swelling of the neck can result in the destruction of the affected glands.
Complications may also arise if the initial bacterial infection spreads from the salivary gland to other parts of the body. This can include cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection) or Ludwig’s angina (a form of cellulitis that occurs in the bottom of the mouth).
Your physician can determine if you have a salivary gland infection with a visual examination. Pus or pain at the affected gland can indicate a bacterial infection.
If your physician suspects a salivary gland infection, he or she may order additional testing to confirm the diagnosis and determine the underlying cause. The following imaging tests can be used to further analyze a salivary gland infection caused by an abscess, salivary stone, or tumor:
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- computed tomography (CT) scan
Your doctor may also perform a biopsy of the affected salivary glands and ducts to test tissue or fluid for bacteria or viruses.
Treatment will depend on the severity of the infection, the underlying cause, and any additional symptoms you may have, such as swelling or pain.
Antibiotics may be used to treat a bacterial infection, pus, or fever. A fine needle aspiration may be used to drain an abscess.
Home treatments include:
- drinking eight to 10 glasses of water daily with lemon to stimulate saliva and keep glands clear
- massaging the affected gland
- applying warm compresses to the affected gland
- rinsing your mouth with warm salt water
- sucking on sour lemons or sugar-free lemon candy to encourage saliva flow and reduce swelling
Most salivary gland infections do not require surgery. However, it may be necessary in cases of chronic or recurring infection. Though uncommon, surgical treatment may involve removal of part or all of the parotid salivary gland or removal of the submandibular salivary gland.
There is no way to prevent most salivary gland infections. The best way to reduce your risk of developing an infection is to drink plenty of fluids and maintain good oral hygiene. This includes brushing and flossing your teeth twice daily.