Saliva seems like a trivial thing, but it's far from the least important part of your body. Saliva's moisture allows you to comfortably chew, swallow and even digest your food. It also helps to rinse away debris from your teeth, reducing your risk for cavities and tooth decay.
Several problems can occur in the salivary glands, though, preventing you from producing enough to keep your mouth clean. One of them is a blocked salivary duct, wherein something physically obstructs the tube that connects the gland to your mouth – causing saliva to back up in the gland.
What Causes It?
One of the more common causes of a blocked salivary duct is a salivary gland stone. Made from the salts that naturally occur in saliva, these stones are more likely to develop in people who are dehydrated, suffer from gout or are taking medications that cause dry mouth, according to Clarence Sasaki, MD. Although stones tend to develop in the submandibular glands, located near the back of the mouth, they can also form in the parotid glands near the ears. When a stone forms in the duct of the parotid gland, it can lead to a condition known as parotitis, or inflammation of the gland.
Salivary stones are the most common cause of blockages, but they aren't the only things that can obstruct the ducts. In some cases a stricture or narrowing of the duct can keep saliva from flowing. And in rare cases, a mucous plug can cause the blockage, according to a 2007 study published in the journal of Dentomaxillofacial Radiology.
Signs of a Blockage
Typically, the signs of a blocked salivary duct become most visible when a person is eating or drinking. When you start into a meal, your glands start to produce saliva. But if a stone or similar obstruction keeps the saliva from flowing through this duct into the mouth, it can back up in the gland – causing the gland to swell and, sometimes, produce a little pain. Other signs of a blocked duct include dry mouth and trouble swallowing.
A blocked salivary duct can also lead to sialadenitis, or an infection of a salivary gland, as bacteria is more likely to grow and multiply when your saliva is trapped in the gland. Signs of an infection can include redness, swelling and pus.
What You Can Do
If you feel irritation or even just slight swelling near the site of your saliva glands – particularly when eating – it's a good idea to schedule an appointment with your doctor or dentist. Both can feel inside your mouth to see if a stone is causing the blockage. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests they may use imaging as well, to take a closer look at what's going on.
Often the goal is to remove the stone that's blocking the duct, and this can be done in several ways. With luck you might be able to massage the stone out of place or stimulate enough saliva flow to wash it away. If not, your doctor might try to manually push the stone from the duct, or perform a minimally invasive surgical procedure known as a sialoendoscopy. Although removing the stone is a sufficient option for many patients, those who develop salivary gland stones frequently need to have their doctor remove the affected gland itself.
Incurring an infection thanks to the blockage isn't fun, but your doctor will most likely prescribe a course of antibiotics to clear it up. Massaging the area can help relieve swelling and pain associated with the infection. You might also consider using a special mouthwash, such as Colgate® Peroyxl® Mouth Sore Rinse, to minimize any discomfort you feel from the swollen gland. Rest assured most other pain relievers can help you feel better while getting treatment for this annoying condition.