Saliva keeps our mouths moist, helps with swallowing, aids in digestion, and protects our teeth. The salivary glands are responsible for making saliva, then small tubes called ducts carry the saliva into the mouth. When something is wrong with the salivary glands or ducts, it can cause pain and lead to infection, so if you’re having symptoms that could indicate a salivary gland problem, it’s important to know when to see a doctor.
Where are the Salivary Glands?
You have hundreds of tiny salivary glands in your mouth and throat, along with three major salivary glands:
• Parotid glands, located inside the cheeks
• Submandibular glands on the floor of the mouth
• Sublingual glands, which are under the tongue
Symptoms of Salivary Gland Problems
When your salivary glands or ducts aren’t working correctly, you may notice the following symptoms:
• Swelling of glands
• Dry mouth
• A foul taste from drainage
Conditions That Cause Problems with Salivary Glands
If saliva isn’t being produced as it should or is blocked from flowing through ducts, it could be from one of these conditions:
Salivary stones. This buildup of crystallized saliva deposits can block the flow of saliva, leading to pain and swelling in areas where saliva is backed up. Symptoms are most noticeable when eating as saliva starts to flow but can’t exit the ductal system, causing swelling and pain. It can lead to infection if not treated.
Salivary gland infection. When salivary ducts become blocked, bacteria can form in the gland causing a painful lump and foul-tasting pus. It’s common in adults who have salivary stones but can also happen in newborns. Untreated salivary gland infections can lead to high fevers and abscesses.
Viral infections. Influenza, mumps and other viruses can cause the parotid salivary glands in the cheeks to become swollen, which is when some patients have a chipmunk cheek appearance.
Cysts. If you have an infection, injury, stone or tumor in your mouth, a cyst can develop in the salivary glands. Cysts can appear as a soft, raised area or as a blister. Babies who have problems with ear development may develop cysts in the parotid gland, which can interfere with eating and speaking.
Tumors. Several types of tumors can interfere with the salivary glands, including:
• Pleomorphic adenoma, a non-cancerous growth that can affect the parotid glands, the submandibular glands and minor salivary glands. It’s usually painless and grows slowly.
• Warthin’s tumor, another benign growth that affects the parotid gland.
• Salivary gland cancers, which can grow quickly and require immediate attention.
Sjögren’s syndrome. This chronic autoimmune disease causes cells of the immune system to attack salivary glands, leading to dry mouth, dry eyes and sometimes painless enlargement of the salivary glands.
Diagnosing and Treating Salivary Gland Problems
If you’ve noticed painful lumps or a dry mouth, it’s important to see an ENT for an accurate diagnosis. After a complete physical exam and possible lab tests and X-rays, your doctor will take steps to identify what the problem is. This may mean obtaining a CT scan or an MRI for closer viewing or ordering a fine needle aspiration biopsy.
Some salivary gland problems can be treated surgically and some non-surgically.
• Stones and other blockages may need to be removed to restore comfort and avoid infection.
• Antibiotics may be prescribed to clear up infection.
• Medication may be given to relieve dry mouth.
• Tumors usually require removal, followed by radiation and chemotherapy if cancerous.
Sound Health Services Treats Conditions of the Mouth
Otolaryngologists at Sound Health can diagnose and treat problems with salivary glands in order to relieve pain and restore proper function. If you’re having symptoms that could indicate a salivary gland problem, please call (314) 332-1377 in Missouri and (618) 235-3687 in Illinois.