Swelling is when areas of the body enlarge, often due to inflammation or fluid buildup. It can occur in the joints and extremities, as well as in other parts of the body, like the face.
Swollen cheeks can make your face noticeably puffy or rounder. The swelling can develop without pain, or with symptoms like tenderness, itching, or tingling. It might feel as if you have mouth swelling inside the cheek.
While a puffy face can alter your appearance, swollen cheeks aren’t always serious. It can indicate a minor health concern, or a medical emergency, like anaphylaxis. It might also be a symptom of a serious underlying medical condition, like cancer.
Read on to learn about common causes of a swollen cheek, as well as ways to reduce puffiness.
Cheek swelling can happen gradually over several hours, or appear out of nowhere. There isn’t a single cause for this change in appearance, but rather several plausible explanations.
If left untreated, complications of preeclampsia include organ damage and death to mother and baby. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you’re pregnant and experience:
- sudden swelling
- blurry vision
- severe headache
- severe pain in your stomach
This bacterial skin infection commonly affects the lower legs, but can also develop in the face, resulting in puffy, swollen cheeks.
Cellulitis occurs when bacteria enters the skin through an injury or break. It isn’t contagious, but can be life-threatening if the infection spreads to the bloodstream. See a doctor for any skin infection that doesn’t improve or worsens.
Other symptoms of cellulitis include:
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction. Your body goes into shock, at which point your airway narrows and you experience swelling around the face, tongue, or throat. This swelling can cause puffy cheeks.
Other symptoms of anaphylaxis include low blood pressure, a weak or rapid pulse, fainting, nausea, and trouble breathing.
A tooth abscess is a pocket of pus that forms in the mouth. It’s caused by a bacterial infection and characterized by pain and swelling around the cheeks.
If left untreated, an abscess can result in tooth loss, or the infection can spread throughout your body. Symptoms include:
- severe throbbing toothache
- sensitivity to hot and cold
- swollen lymph nodes
- foul taste in the mouth
See a dentist if you experience any severe pain in your mouth.
This condition refers to inflammation of the gum tissue, usually affecting the gums around an emerging wisdom tooth. Symptoms of pericoronitis include swollen gums and cheeks, a discharge of pus, and a foul taste in the mouth.
- muscle aches
- pain while chewing
Complications of mumps include:
If you have mumps, see a doctor for any pain or swelling in the testicles, or if you develop a stiff neck, severe abdominal pain, or a severe headache.
An injury to the face can also cause a swollen cheek. This can happen after a fall or a blow to the face. An injury to the face can sometimes result in a bone fracture.
Signs of a facial fracture include bruising, swelling, and tenderness. See a doctor after a facial injury if you have severe bruising or pain that doesn’t improve.
In hypothyroidism, the body doesn’t produce enough of the thyroid hormone. This can also cause a puffy face. Other symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, muscle weakness, joint stiffness, and impaired memory.
Some people with Cushing syndrome also bruise easily. Other symptoms include purple or pink stretch marks, acne, and slow-healing wounds. If left untreated, this condition can cause high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, as well as loss of bone mass and muscle mass.
Long-term steroid use
Long-term use of the steroid prednisone (used to treat autoimmune conditions) is another possible cause of swollen cheeks. It’s also another cause of Cushing syndrome. This medication can cause weight gain and fatty deposits on the sides of the face and on the back of the neck.
Other side effects of steroids include headache, thinning skin, and restlessness.
Salivary gland tumor
A tumor in the salivary gland can also cause swelling in the cheeks, as well as the mouth, jaw, and neck. One side of your face may also change in size or shape. Other symptoms of a tumor in this part of the body include:
- numbness in the face
- facial weakness
- trouble swallowing
Some salivary gland tumors are benign. A malignant tumor, however, is cancerous and can be life-threatening. See a doctor for any unexplained swelling in the cheeks, especially when swelling is accompanied by numbness or facial weakness.
Some conditions that cause a swollen cheek affect both sides of the face. Others only cause swelling on one side of the face. Common causes of cheek swelling on one side include:
- tooth abscess
- facial injury
- salivary gland tumor
Swelling that affects not only the cheeks, but also the gums can indicate an underlying dental problem. Common causes of swollen gums and cheeks include pericoronitis or a tooth abscess.
Some people with swollen cheeks experience pain, but others don’t have any tenderness or inflammation. Conditions that can cause swelling with no pain include:
- long-term use of steroids
- Cushing syndrome
Children can also develop swollen cheeks. Some of the likeliest causes include:
- Cushing syndrome
- tooth abscess
- long-term use the steroids
Since there isn’t a single cause of swollen cheeks, there isn’t a single test to diagnose the underlying issue.
A doctor might be able to diagnose some conditions based off of a description of your symptoms and a physical examination. These include anaphylaxis, mumps, cellulitis, and a tooth abscess.
Sometimes, other tests are needed to diagnose the cause, including:
- blood pressure reading
- blood tests (evaluate liver, thyroid, and kidney function)
- imaging tests (MRI, CT scan, X-rays)
- fetal ultrasound
Be specific when explaining symptoms. Your description can help doctors narrow down possible causes, which can help them determine which diagnostic tests to run.
Treatment for swollen cheeks varies and depends on the underlying medical problem.
Puffiness might not go away completely until you address the cause of this symptom, but the following measures can help decrease swelling in the cheeks:
- Cold compress. Cold therapy reduces swelling, and can stop pain by numbing the area. Apply a cold pack to your cheeks for 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off. Don’t place ice directly on your skin. Wrap the cold pack in a towel instead.
- Elevate head. Elevation decreases blood flow to the swollen area and reduces swelling. Sleep upright in a chair, or elevate your head with extra pillows while in bed.
- Reduce salt intake. Eating salty foods can increase fluid retention and worsen swollen cheeks. Prepare meals with salt substitutes or herbs.
- Massage cheeks. Massaging the area can help move excess fluid from this part of your face.
Depending on the underlying cause, treatment for swollen cheeks might require medication to correct a hormone imbalance. This is often the case if you’re diagnosed with hypothyroidism or Cushing syndrome.
If you take a steroid, like prednisone, reducing your dosage or weaning yourself off the drug may also reduce puffiness. However, don’t stop taking your medication without first talking to your doctor.
Your doctor may also prescribe an antibiotic if the underlying cause is a dental or skin infection.
An antihistamine (oral or intravenous) can treat an allergic reaction, reducing swelling in the face.
In the case of preeclampsia, you’ll need medication to lower your blood pressure, and possibly a corticosteroid or anticonvulsant to help prolong the pregnancy. If these medication don’t work, you may have to deliver your baby early.
Other possible treatments for swollen cheeks include:
- a corticosteroid to ease swelling
- a tooth extraction
- an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen sodium (Aleve)
See a doctor for any cheek swelling that doesn’t improve or worsens after a few days. You should also see a doctor for any accompanying symptoms such as:
- severe pain
- breathing difficulty
- high blood pressure
- severe stomach pain.
Developing a fuller, puffy appearance in one or both of your cheeks can be alarming. But swelling in the cheeks doesn’t always indicate a serious problem. All the same, never ignore unexplained puffiness.