Saliva is the fluid which keeps your mouth moist, shields your teeth from harmful substances, acts as an aid to digestion, and provides assistance for the swallowing process. The glands which produce saliva are known as the salivary glands, and the fluid which is produced in them is carried into the mouth via small tubes which are known as ducts.
If anything happens to the ducts or the salivary glands, it can create a significant amount of discomfort for a person, and can also lead to infection. If you should experience symptoms which are warning signs of some kind of problem with salivary glands or the ducts, you should recognize these for what they are, and seek medical assistance from your family doctor.
Your salivary glands can produce up to a quart of saliva every single day, because there are three pairs of these glands, all engaged in the production of saliva – the sublingual glands which are positioned under the tongue, the parotid glands on the insides of your cheeks, and the submandibular glands on the bottom of your mouth.
In addition to these three major pairings, there are actually hundreds of minor salivary glands which are situated throughout the throat and the mouth. Problems with either the salivary glands or the ducts are generally recognizable as drymouth, fever, pain, glandular swelling, and sometimes an unpleasant drainage which accumulates in the mouth.
Causes of Problems with Salivary Glands
There are a number of possible causes of salivary gland problems, some of which are situated in the glands themselves, and some of them constituting blockage of the ducts, so that saliva drainage is disrupted. One of most common causes of swollen glands is salivary stones, which are crystallized saliva deposits that manage to accumulate in the glands.
These can often prevent the flow of saliva, and when that happens, saliva backs up into the gland, forcing the gland to swell, and causing discomfort. Pain is usually sensed in one gland or the other, and is intermittent in nature, but it will get progressively worse until the blockage is cleared, and if it is not cleared promptly, the salivary gland can then become infected.
When ducts into the mouth become blocked, a bacterial infection of the parotid gland is often the result, a painful lump is created, and nasty smelling pus will begin draining into the mouth. This condition is far more common in older adults, but it sometimes also happens in babies soon after birth.
Whenever swollen salivary glands go untreated, they will very likely cause high fever, severe pain, and a collection of pus known as an abscess. Infections of a viral nature such as flu or the mumps can also cause salivary gland willing. When swelling of this type occurs in the parotid glands on both sides of your face, it can give the appearance of full cheeks like those of a chipmunk. This kind of salivary gland swelling is quite often associated with mumps, since it occurs in as many as 40% of all mumps infections.
Other types of viral illnesses which may trigger swelling of the salivary glands are human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), and Coxsackie Virus. When these kinds of viruses occur, they are generally single-sided gland swelling, and are usually accompanied by pain and fever. The risk for developing these kinds of bacterial infections rises when a person is dehydrated or is suffering from malnutrition.
Cysts can also develop in the salivary glands when salivary stones block the flow of saliva, or when blockage results from infections, injuries, or tumors. In some cases, babies are born with cysts in the parotid gland because of a developmental problem with the ears. Anyone who develops cysts in the salivary glands will probably have difficulty speaking and with eating.
There are a few different kinds of tumors which can affect the salivary glands, and these can be either malignant or benign. The two most common kinds of tumors affecting salivary glands are Warthin’s Tumor and pleomorphic adenomas. Pleomorphic adenomas generally impact the parotid glands, but can also have an impact on the submandibular gland, or the hundreds of relatively minor salivary glands. These kinds of tumors are usually slow-growing, and relatively free of pain. They are non-cancerous tumors and occur far more often in women than in men.
Treatment for Salivary Gland Problems
Treatment for blockages of the ducts and for saliva stones generally starts with warm compresses and sour candies, since these are helpful in triggering an increase of saliva flow. Stones must generally be removed, and if simpler measures don’t achieve the desired results, surgery is generally indicated.
When surgery is necessary to remove tumors, they are often radiated in order to prevent them from returning at a later date. Cancerous tumors often require stronger radiation, as well as chemotherapy.
Large cysts are generally treated with surgery, since these cannot generally be handled with medication. However, some other types of salivary gland problems do respond to medication, for instance bacterial infections, and these can effectively be treated with antibiotics. Other problems such as drymouth can also be treated with medications.