You probably don't think much about the saliva in your mouth unless you have too much or not enough. But saliva, produced by your salivary glands, plays a critical role in not just your oral health, but your overall health. This is why it's important to understand the complications that can interfere with saliva production and how you can keep your glands healthy and productive.
Location and Function
You have six main glands (three on each side of your mouth) that continually manufacture saliva. The parotid glands secrete saliva into your mouth above your upper molars, while the submandibular glands use ducts in your jaw beside your lower molars and the sublingual glands empty saliva underneath your tongue.
Enzymes in saliva start the digestive process as soon as you chew your food. Without saliva to lubricate and soften food, chewing and swallowing is difficult. Saliva also keeps your mouth moistened so that you can easily speak. Another key function of saliva is to wash harmful bacteria off of your teeth and lower the acidity level in your mouth, helping to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. In addition, the calcium, phosphorus and fluoride found in saliva help repair enamel.
Keeping Your Salivary Glands Healthy
By following these basic guidelines, you can keep your salivary glands healthy and productive, facilitating the flow of saliva your body needs.
- Think about quitting if you are smoker or use other tobacco products.
- Limit alcohol intake and don't use recreational drugs.
- Closely monitor any health conditions, like diabetes.
- Notify your doctor if a prescribed medication dries your mouth.
- Talk to your doctor about solutions for snoring or breathing through your mouth at night.
- Maintain a good oral hygiene routine to reduce bacteria in the mouth.
- See your doctor whenever you have signs of infection in your mouth or swollen salivary glands.
- Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water throughout the day.
What Is Dry Mouth?
When your glands don't produce enough saliva to keep your mouth comfortably moistened, you may have xerostomia, more simply known as dry mouth. Everyone experiences dry mouth occasionally, especially when extremely nervous or stressed. But many people experience dry mouth frequently due to medication side effects or more serious complications that interfere with saliva production. Symptoms of dry mouth include difficulty chewing, changes in taste, a burning sensation throughout the mouth, mouth sores and cracked lips.
There are more than 500 medications (over-the-counter and prescription) that can cause dry mouth or increase its severity. Decongestants and antihistamines are common culprits, as well as some antidepressants, blood pressure medications, sedatives, antispasmodics for cramps and antipsychotics for anxiety. Drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease and those used to prevent nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy or radiation treatment may also trigger dry mouth.
To lessen the symptoms of dry mouth, sip water throughout the day and avoid smoking and drinking beverages with caffeine or alcohol. To stimulate more saliva flow, chew sugarless gum, suck on sugarless candies or use a saliva substitute recommended by your doctor.
Other Conditions That Affect Saliva Production
Sjogren's syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects the salivary glands and may cause dry mouth or mouth sores. Dry mouth is a symptom associated with HIV, Parkinson's disease and diabetes. Chemotherapy can sometimes make the mouth feel dry because the saliva becomes thicker, reports the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a salivary gland infection can occur due to dehydration, chronic illness or blockage in a duct from a salivary stone. Smoking or poor oral hygiene can also result in a bacterial infection of a gland. Although uncommon today, mumps is a viral infection that most often affects the parotid gland. Besides dry mouth, symptoms of a gland infection may include fever, redness on the cheeks or neck, swelling or pain in the upper neck or side of the face and difficulty opening the mouth.
See your doctor if you are concerned about a salivary gland infection or another condition affecting your body's ability to produce saliva. Remember a wet mouth is a healthy mouth, and salivary glands are the key.