One important function our mouth performs is the production of saliva, which helps us chew and break down food for digestion. But where does saliva come from? They come from a few different salivary glands in our mouth, the largest being the parotid gland. These glands lie below and in front of the ears, and a healthy parotid gland supplies saliva rich in digestive proteins to the mouth. Here, we’ll discuss what they do, possible infections, and treatments.
What Is The Parotid Gland?
Parotid glands secrete saliva in the upper area of the mouth near your upper second molar. Your parotid glands each have two lobes, or parts: the superficial lobe and deep lobe, and between these lobes is the facial nerve, which controls your ability to close your eyes, raise your eyebrows, and smile. This gland wraps around the back of your lower jaw so that saliva can travel through a tube called the parotid duct and come out into your mouth.
Sometimes, abnormal groups of cells develop in the parotid glands. According to The Mayo Clinic, the parotid glands are the most common of the salivary glands to develop a tumor. Typically, parotid tumors cause your jaw or face to swell; however, they do not often cause pain. Other symptoms of a tumor might be burning or prickly sensations in your face, the loss of facial movement, or numbness. Luckily, most are non-cancerous (or benign), but sometimes they can become cancerous and are usually treated with surgery. If the tumors are cancerous, your doctor may recommend radiation, chemotherapy, or both.
Another issue that might arise in your parotid gland is called a salivary infection, called sialadenitis. When affecting the parotid gland specifically, the infection might be referred to as parotitis. These infections can be caused by a staph infection, bacteria, viruses like Mumps, or fungi in the glands. The infections are also more likely to occur when the mouth is dry due to salivary stones or blockages in the gland’s duct, lack of fluids, medications, and the autoimmune disorder Sjögren’s syndrome.
You might be wondering: can infections outside the salivary gland affect the parotid gland? Can a tooth infection cause the parotid gland to swell? The answer to both questions is yes, as poor oral hygiene can lead to the growth of bacteria, which can spread to the parotid gland. That being said, a salivary gland infection after dental work is not common. Wisdom teeth salivary gland infections are also uncommon.
Signs of a parotid gland infection might look like hard swelling of the parotid gland and surrounding tissues, as well as redness, pain, and tenderness. Fever, chills, and draining of infectious fluid from the gland can also occur.
When it comes to treatments for parotid gland infections, your doctor or dental professional will likely look at your medical history and examine the salivary glands. They might also order a CT scan or ultrasound to look for blockages due to stones or tumors. From there, they’ll be able to determine the best treatment.
Increased fluid intake, antibiotics, and surgery are some potential treatments for parotid gland infections. 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 also help prevent the infection from returning. If you’re experiencing an infection, you can also perform self-care treatments at home, such as massaging and applying heat to the inflamed gland, drinking lots of water, and not smoking if you’re a smoker.
Want to protect your parotid gland from infection? The best thing you can do every day is to maintain excellent oral care to ensure you’re managing the bacteria and saliva flow in your mouth. That means brushing twice daily with fluoride toothpaste and cleaning between your teeth daily with floss, water flossers, or other interdental cleaners.
Saliva is essential to oral 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, see your dental professional for a checkup.
This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.