Salivary gland disorders - Salivary stones, blocked glands and more
What are salivary glands?
Problems can develop with the glands that produce saliva, including swelling, infection, cysts, tumours and salivary gland stones.
Your salivary glands produce up to around 1.5 litres of saliva (spit) a day. It gets into the mouth through ducts or tubes called salivary ducts.
This is important to protect teeth, lubricate the mouth and to help with swallowing and digestion.
When you chew, the production of watery saliva is triggered from the top part of the mouth.
Thicker saliva containing mucus comes from glands under the tongue.
This is different to phlegm, which comes from the lungs and nose.
Where are the salivary glands located?
The three main types of salivary glands are:
- Parotid glands - located on the sides of the face
- Submandibular glands - located at the bottom of the mouth
- Sublingual glands - located under the tongue.
These are the main ones but several hundred minor salivary glands can be found in the mouth and throat.
Signs of a salivary gland disorder
Signs and symptoms of a salivary gland disorder or blockage can include:
- Swelling or redness in the cheeks, under the tongue, or under the chin
- Dry mouth (also called xerostomia)
- Pain in the mouth
- Facial pain
- Mild to severe fever
- Bad taste in the mouth
- Pus in the mouth
- Discomfort when eating
Types and causes salivary gland disorders
- Salivary stones (sialoliths or salivary calculi). Salivary stones are crystallised mineral deposits that block saliva flow causing pain, swelling and lumps under the tongue. These are usually under 1 cm across but can be larger. Pain may be felt more when eating. Some medications may make stones more likely to form.
- Bacterial infections (sialadenitis). Bacterial infections can be caused by blocked salivary ducts. Symptoms can include swelling in the cheek or under the chin, bad taste in the mouth caused by pus, pain and discomfort, fever and abscesses. Dehydration and malnutrition increase a person's risk of developing a bacterial infection. This condition can often affect young babies and older adults. Bacterial infections may be treated with antibiotics.
- Viral infections. Viral infections including mumps, flu, the Epstein-Barr virus, cytomegalovirus, Coxsackie virus and HIV, can cause swelling of the parotid salivary glands resulting in an enlarged 'hamster cheeks' appearance.
- Cysts. If the saliva flow becomes blocked by stones, tumours or injuries, cysts can develop in the salivary glands. Some babies can also be born with cysts in their parotid gland due to problems with the development of their ears. Cysts can also affect speech and eating.
- Cancer or benign tumours. These growths are usually benign (non-cancerous) but cancerous tumours can occur. Pleomorphic adenomas are benign salivary gland tumours. Warthin's tumours are benign tumours, usually in the parotid gland.
- Sjögren's syndrome. This is an autoimmune disease where the body's defences wrongly attack parts of the body, including salivary glands.
- Sarcoidosis. This can sometimes cause inflammation of salivary glands.