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Salivary gland problems

The glands producing saliva in the mouth can develop problems, including becoming swollen, infected, or can develop cysts or deposits called stones.

Saliva

Your salivary glands produce nearly a litre of saliva each day. Saliva is important to lubricate your mouth, help with swallowing, protect your teeth against bacteria, and aid in the digestion of food. The three major pairs of salivary glands are:

  • Parotid glands on the sides of the face
  • Submandibular glands at the floor of the mouth
  • Sublingual glands under the tongue

There are also several hundred minor salivary glands throughout the mouth and throat. Saliva drains into the mouth through small tubes called ducts.

When there is a problem with the salivary glands or ducts you may experience symptoms such as salivary gland swelling, dry mouth, pain, fever, and foul-tasting drainage into the mouth.

Causes of salivary gland problems

Many different problems can interfere with the function of the salivary glands or block the ducts so that they cannot drain saliva. Here are some of the more common salivary gland problems:

Salivary stones (sialoliths) The most common causes of swollen salivary glands, salivary stones, are accumulations of crystallised saliva deposits. Sometimes salivary stones can block the flow of saliva. When saliva cannot exit through the ducts it backs up into the gland, causing pain and swelling. Pain is usually intermittent, is felt in one gland, and gets progressively worse. Unless the blockage is cleared the gland is likely to become infected.

Salivary gland infection or sialadenitis. Bacterial infection of the salivary gland, most commonly the parotid gland, may result when the duct into the mouth is blocked. Sialadenitis creates a painful lump in the gland and foul-tasting pus drains into the mouth. Sialadenitis is more common in older adults with salivary stones, but it can also occur in babies during the first few weeks after birth. If not treated, salivary gland infections can cause severe pain, fevers and abscess.  

Infections. Viral infections such as mumps, flu and others can cause swelling of the salivary glands. Swelling occurs in parotid glands on both sides of the face, giving the appearance of 'hamster cheeks'. Salivary gland swelling is commonly associated with mumps, occurring in about 30% to 40% of mumps infections. It usually begins approximately 48 hours after the start of other symptoms such as fever and headache.

Other viral illnesses that cause salivary gland swelling include the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), Coxsackie virus and HIV.

Bacterial infections generally cause one-sided salivary gland swelling. Other symptoms such as fever and pain will accompany the swelling. The bacteria are typically those found normally in the mouth, as well as staph bacteria. These infections most often affect the parotid gland. Dehydration and malnutrition increase the risk of getting a bacterial infection.

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