Your salivary glands produce saliva, which keeps your mouth moist, helps protect your teeth from rapid decay, and helps you to digest your food. The salivary glands are relatively small, and they’re 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 conditions go away with time or antibiotics, others require more serious treatments, including surgery.
You have three paired salivary glands called the parotid, submandibular, and sublingual glands. They are responsible for producing saliva. Blocked salivary glands are the most common source of problems. These blocked glands can cause painful symptoms.
Sialolithiasis and sialadenitis
Sialolithiasis and sialadenitis can occur in the salivary glands:
- Sialolithiasis occurs when stones made of calcium form in the salivary glands. These stones can block the glands, and that can partially or completely stop the flow of saliva.
- Sialadenitis (or sialoadenitis) is an infection involving 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 syndrome is another common salivary gland disorder. It occurs when white blood cells target healthy cells in moisture-producing glands, such as the salivary, sweat, and oil glands. This condition most commonly affects women with autoimmune disorders, such as lupus.
Viruses can affect the salivary glands as well. These include:
Cancerous and noncancerous tumors
Cancerous and noncancerous tumors may develop in the salivary glands as well. Cancerous tumors of the salivary glands are rare. When they do occur, it’s typically in 50- to 60-year-olds, according to Cedars-Sinai.
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, but this is rare.
The symptoms of sialolithiasis 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 that drains when the cyst bursts
- difficulty eating
- difficulty speaking
- difficulty swallowing
Viral infections in the salivary glands, such as mumps, can cause:
- muscle aches
- joint pain
- swelling on both sides of the face
The symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome include:
- dry mouth
- dry eyes
- tooth decay
- sores in the mouth
- joint pain or swelling
- dry cough
- unexplained fatigue
- swollen salivary glands
- frequent salivary gland infections
If you notice the following symptoms, see your doctor:
- a bad taste in your mouth
- dry mouth
- mouth pain
- facial swelling
- trouble opening your mouth
Your doctor will recommend testing based on your medical history and a physical exam.
Some cases are quite obvious from the history and physical exam alone. In such cases, diagnostic tests may not be necessary.
Your doctor may want to 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 doctor 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 doctor suspects you may have an autoimmune disorder that affects your salivary glands.
Treatment for salivary gland disorders depends on the disease type and how advanced it is.
For example, if you have a mass in your salivary gland, your doctor 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 won’t typically start 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 your digestion. Your doctor may recommend drinking more fluids and avoiding foods high in sodium.
If the salivary gland mass isn’t cancerous, radiation may not be required. A mass that doesn’t cause symptoms may be treated with conservative measures. This includes special mouthwashes to relieve dry mouth.
You can also keep your mouth moist by rinsing with a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of water.
Antibiotics can 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 prevent salivary gland disorders and tooth decay.