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How the Salivary Glands Function to Aid Oral Health

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Every time you eat, your salivary glands create a watery liquid in your mouth that's essential for breaking down food and aiding digestion. But did you know they play a critical role in your oral health as well? Learn where your salivary glands are, how they protect your teeth, and what issues affect saliva production.

What Are Salivary Glands?

Salivary glands make saliva and secrete it into your mouth through openings called ducts. Your mouth contains three major types of salivary glands:

  • Parotid glands. These largest salivary glands sit on the sides of your face in front of your ears. They empty saliva into your mouth near your upper molars.
  • Submandibular glands. Your submandibular glands are rounded in shape and lie below your jaw. They secrete saliva into your mouth from under the tongue.
  • Sublingual glands. The smallest of the three major salivary glands, the sublingual glands are almond-shaped and found under the floor of your mouth. They empty near the junction of your tongue and the floor of your mouth.

Hundreds of other minor salivary glands exist in your mouth and throughout your digestive tract. These glands are so tiny you can't see them without a microscope. You can find them in places like the lining of your lips, inside your cheeks, and more.

How Do the Salivary Glands Function?

Your salivary glands continually create saliva to keep your mouth and digestive tract moist. When something touches your mouth or tongue or begins to chew saliva's secretion increases. While eating, saliva helps lubricate the food so it can pass through your esophagus to your stomach more easily. It also contains certain enzymes that help in the early stages of digestion, so it can soften and break down the more complex products your body needs to store as energy.

Your saliva — and salivary glands — also play an essential role in oral health. It's filled with minerals that help lower the acid level in your mouth, a process that keeps your tooth enamel from wearing and cavities from forming. Plus, saliva helps wash away the food debris that leads to the acid-forming, enamel-wearing bacteria.

What Are Common Salivary Gland Disorders?

A lack of saliva causes a condition called xerostomia, or dry mouth, which can cause an increase in tooth decay, bad breath, and even digestive problems. Because these glands secrete saliva through a tiny opening at the end of a tube, they sometimes get blocked or inflamed, causing less saliva flow. Learn more about these common disorders that affect your salivary glands:

  • Salivary stones. Also known as sialolithiasis, these hardened mineral deposits form in the gland ducts and obstruct saliva flow. These stones can also cause the gland to swell and become infected. Small stones are treated by applying moist heat to the area and staying hydrated. Larger stones will need to be removed by a dental professional.
  • Inflamed salivary gland. Sialadenitis occurs when a virus or bacteria causes the salivary gland to become inflamed. For example, mumps is a virus that infects the parotid gland. An infection can cause pain, tenderness, redness, and fever or chills. Treatment may require hydration and intravenous antibiotics to keep the infection from spreading to the head and neck's deep tissues or bloodstream, which can be dangerous.
  • Tumors or cysts. These rare tumors occur when abnormal cells grow in the salivary glands. Most salivary gland tumors are benign and most frequently involve the parotid glands. 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.
  • Other disorders. Several diseases and autoimmune disorders can cause inflammation and pain in the salivary glands. These include HIV/Aids, Sjögren's syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and even alcoholism.

Specific medications can also lower saliva production and cause dry mouth. Fortunately, your dentist can prescribe a product to help relieve those symptoms or work to find an alternative that can reduce dry mouth effects.

Keep Your Salivary Glands Healthy

With your salivary glands working around the clock to help keep your digestion on track and your enamel intact, you need to make sure those glands are happy and healthy. Follow these tips for helping your salivary glands function properly, and talk to your dentist if you experience any pain or dry-mouth symptoms.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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