The salivary glands in your mouth produce saliva that keeps your mouth healthy and helps soften food when you eat. Infections, stones, or tumors in the glands can cause pain and swelling. Fortunately, most tumors in the salivary glands are not cancerous, and most salivary conditions are curable with home treatments, medications, or surgery.
You have three main pairs and almost a thousand minor salivary glands located in your cheeks, back of your mouth, and floor of your mouth. The salivary glands produce saliva. Saliva helps to keep your mouth moist and clean. Saliva moistens food to make chewing and swallowing easier. It also contains enzymes that help to break down food, beginning the process of digestion.
Bacteria from poor oral hygiene or viruses, such as the mumps, can infect the salivary glands. Salivary stones or tumors can form in the glands. The majority of salivary gland tumors are not cancerous. In the rare event of cancer, the prognosis is usually good with surgical removal.
Viral infections may cause salivary gland swelling; however, bacterial infections can cause enlarged painful glands. Your face may swell around your ears and jaw, making it difficult and painful to chew or open your mouth. You may have a bad taste in your mouth. Food may taste different. Your mouth may feel dry, and you may develop a fever. Salivary stones block the flow of saliva causing pain and swelling. A bacterial infection is a common consequence of salivary stones. Salivary tumors appear as painless masses or lumps. They usually grow very slowly. Sometimes a tumor can affect the nerves that move part of the face because the gland and nerve are located near each other.
You should contact your doctor if you experience symptoms of a salivary gland disorder. Your doctor will examine you and check your glands for swelling or signs of infection. Imaging tests such as X-rays (ptyalogram or sialogram), computed tomography (CT) scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may be ordered to help identify stones or tumors. A fine needle aspiration may be used to obtain cells from a mass to test for cancer.
Some salivary gland infections resolve without treatment. It can be helpful to rinse your mouth with warm salt water and suck on sugar-free lemon drops to keep your mouth moist. Antibiotics may be used to treat bacterial infections, but they do not work on viruses. Smokers should stop smoking to help promote healing. Salivary gland stones or tumors are removed surgically. The procedure usually corrects the condition. In the rare case of cancer, one may also be treated with radiation, chemotherapy, or both to assure the best outcome.
You may be able to prevent bacterial salivary gland infections by brushing and flossing your teeth regularly. Quitting smoking can help as well. Ask your doctor about smoking cessation methods that may make it easier for you to quit.
Am I at Risk
Smokers and people that do not brush their teeth regularly may have an increased risk of salivary gland infections. People with certain medical conditions, including mumps, human immunodeficiency virus, Sjögren's disease, dehydration, or diabetes may be susceptible to infections as well.
You should receive emergency medical treatment if you experience difficulty breathing or swallowing.