A Salivary Gland is the tissue in our mouths that expels saliva. Salivary Glands are only found in mammals.
Saliva is a mixture of water, mucus, antibacterial substance, and digestive enzymes. One of the most recognizable digestive enzymes in the human body is alpha-amylase.
Whenever we chew, we are activating these glands in preparation for the safe breakdown of our meal.
Salivary Glands Function:
- Saliva itself serves many uses. As the only secretion of our Salivary Glands, it is helpful in creating the food bolus, or the finely packed ball of food that we roll inside our mouths.
- Saliva has lubricating properties that are protective, as well. Saliva protects the inside of our mouths, our teeth, and our throats as we begin to swallow the bolus. It also cleanses the mouth after a meal, and dissolves food into chemicals that we perceive as taste.
The three major pairs of Salivary Glands are:
Parotid glands on the insides of the cheeks
Submandibular glands at the floor of the mouth
Sublingual glands under the tongue
There are also several hundred minor Salivary Glands throughout the mouth and throat. Saliva drains into the mouth through small tubes called ducts.
When there is a problem with the Salivary Glands or ducts, you may have symptoms such as Salivary Gland swelling, dry mouth, pain, fever, and foul-tasting drainage into the mouth.
Causes of Salivary Gland Problems:
Many different problems can interfere with the function of the Salivary Glands or block the ducts so they can't drain saliva.
Salivary stones, or sialoliths. The most common cause of swollen Salivary Glands, salivary stones are buildups of crystallized saliva deposits.
Sometimes salivary stones can block the flow of saliva. When saliva can't exit through the ducts, it backs up into the gland, causing pain and swelling. Pain is usually off and on, is felt in one gland, and gets progressively worse. Unless the blockage is cleared, the gland is likely to become infected.
Viral infections such as mumps, flu, and others can cause swelling of the Salivary Glands. Swelling happens in parotid glands on both sides of the face, giving the appearance of "chipmunk cheeks."
Salivary Gland swelling is commonly associated with mumps, happening in about 30% to 40% of mumps infections. It usually begins approximately 48 hours after the start of other symptoms such as fever and headache.
Cysts can develop in the Salivary Glands if injuries, infections, tumors, or salivary stones block the flow of saliva.
Several different types of tumors can affect the Salivary Glands. They can be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). The two most common tumors are pleomorphic adenomas and Warthin's tumor.
Treatment for Salivary Gland Problems:
Treatment for Salivary Gland problems depends on the cause:
For stones and other blockages of the ducts, treatment often begins with measures such as manual removal of stones, warm compresses, or sour candies to increase the flow of saliva. If simple measures don't relieve the problem, surgery may be required to remove the blockage and/or the affected gland.
Surgery is usually required to remove benign and malignant tumors. Some benign tumors are treated with radiation to keep them from coming back. Some cancerous tumors require radiation and chemotherapy. Surgery may also be needed to treat large cysts.