Parotid glands are the largest salivary glands in the mouth, and they lie below and in front of the ears. A healthy parotid gland supplies saliva rich in digestive proteins to the mouth.
About the Parotid Glands
Parotid glands secrete thin, watery saliva in the upper area of the mouth. According to the Center for Advanced Parotid Surgery, the saliva drains through narrow channels called Stensen's ducts. When the mouth is empty, parotid glands supply around 20 percent of its saliva, but when the mouth contains food, they supply 50 percent of the saliva. The proteins in the saliva begin the digestion of food starches, before the chewed food is swallowed.
The cells that make up parotid glands are mostly serous cells, which produce the watery saliva, but the glands also contain other cell types such as lymph nodes. As a result, a tumor can appear in the salivary glands especially the parotid glands, and lymphomas can develop in the lymph nodes. In addition, Stensen's ducts can become blocked by tiny stones, causing pain and swelling, and viral and bacterial infections can affect the glands. Inflammation of the parotid glands is called parotitis.
Parotid Gland Infections
Children who haven't been immunized can develop mumps, a once-common childhood viral infection, in the parotid glands. Occasionally, adults can catch this viral infection, too.
In adults, obstruction is a common cause of bacterial parotid gland infection. Bacterial infections occur because the mouth is full of bacteria, as the American Academy of Otolaryngology explains. When there's a problem with the saliva flow, the bacteria can grow unchecked. The Department of Otolaryngology at the University of California, Irvine states that staph bacteria are a common cause of salivary gland infections. Obstructions in the salivary gland ducts, thick saliva, surgery, medications, dehydration, poor nutrition and poor dental hygiene that cause reduced saliva flow allow staph bacteria to invade the parotid glands.
Swelling in front of the ears is a very noticeable sign of a parotid gland infection. Other symptoms include redness, dry mouth and pain or an odd taste when eating. If the infection is severe, you may find chewing difficult and be unable to open your mouth wide.
Treatments for Parotid Gland Infections
Increased fluid intake, antibiotics and surgery are some potential treatments for parotid gland infections. The physician makes a diagnosis after an examination, asking about symptoms and ordering any needed laboratory tests, ultrasounds or CT scans.
Antibiotics treat a bacterial infection. In some cases, opening a blocked duct could be all that's needed to provide relief. Alternatively, the physician might drain an abscess with a hollow needle.
Medications to reduce dry mouth symptoms may help prevent the infection from returning. Remember to follow good oral hygiene habits. Brush twice daily, floss and add a mouthwash to your routine, such as the Colgate Total Advanced Pro-Shield mouthwash. It provides 12-hour protection against germs even after drinking and eating.
Saliva is essential to dental health, and parotid glands do their part in keeping your mouth fresh and infection-free. If you experience pain or inflammation in the area just in front of your ears, you could have a problem with your parotid glands. See your doctor for a checkup.