You probably don't give your salivary glands much thought unless you're experiencing dryness in your mouth or pain involving one of your glands. Several health problems can cause salivary gland pain — some more serious than others. Should you ever experience this kind of pain, you'll want to be informed on the kinds of issues that can affect your glands, how these conditions can be treated and what you can do to keep your glands healthy.
Know Your Glands
Healthy salivary glands produce and empty saliva into your mouth to keep it moist, which helps you chew, swallow and speak easily. Saliva also helps keep your tooth surfaces strong, removes food debris from teeth and fights bacteria that can cause dental decay, notes the American Dental Association.
Everyone has three pairs of salivary glands: the sublingual, the submandibular and the parotid. Your sublingual glands are found under your tongue, the submandibular glands are under your chin and the parotid glands are located in front of your ears, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Possible Causes of Salivary Gland Pain
Salivary Stones (Sialolithiasis)
If you notice swelling or pain under your tongue, you may have a salivary stone. As saliva backs up, it can calcify into a stone that blocks the salivary duct and causes a painful infection, explains the Cleveland Clinic. These stones commonly form in or around the submandibular glands. A dentist can diagnose any visible stones during a routine exam and remove them in the office under local anesthesia. The National Institutes of Health also recommends drinking lots of water and sucking on sugar-free lemon drops to increase saliva flow and help dislodge any stones.
Mumps is a viral infection that affects one or both of the parotid glands and was once very common in the U.S. The Mayo Clinic explains that, since the development of the mumps vaccine, most people are now immune to this disease; however, outbreaks still occur in schools and colleges where there is close contact among individuals who aren't vaccinated.
The virus spreads through infected saliva, and symptoms usually occur two to three weeks after exposure. These may include swollen glands, fever, loss of appetite, headache and fatigue. Infected individuals remain contagious for about nine days after symptoms appear. Because this is a viral disease with no specific treatment, doctors suggest treating mumps with rest, cold compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers.
Sialadenitis is the clinical term for inflammation of the salivary glands — most commonly the parotid or submandibular glands — caused by bacteria or a virus. The Cleveland Clinic notes that while it's uncommon, the condition can affect elderly people who have salivary stones, infants who are only a few weeks old or people who are dehydrated or malnourished or have weakened immune systems. Poor oral hygiene can also be a contributing factor.
Symptoms may include fever, dry mouth, pain when eating and swelling and tenderness of one or more of the salivary glands. The Cleveland Clinic also explains that patients should see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations, which may include antibiotic medications.
Tumors and Cysts
According to Cedars-Sinai, most salivary gland tumors are noncancerous, and they most frequently involve the parotid glands. Cancerous tumors typically affect patients between the ages of 50 and 60. Cysts can also develop in the glands after infections, injuries or stones. Tumors are usually surgically removed, while small cysts often drain on their own.
Keeping Your Glands Healthy
To keep your glands healthy, you should maintain good oral hygiene and avoid habits that increase your risk of dry mouth, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Drink lots of water to stay hydrated throughout the day, and keep a close eye on certain health conditions that can lead to dry mouth, such as diabetes. Also, talk with your doctor if you think any medications you're taking might be causing a dry mouth.
Taking these steps to maintain healthy glands may help you avoid salivary gland pain. But if you do experience pain or have chronic dry mouth, see your doctor or dentist sooner rather than later. A quick diagnosis and appropriate treatment can get your saliva flowing painlessly once again.