What Causes Salivary Gland Infections?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Salivary glands make saliva and help with digestion. Anyone can develop swollen salivary glands, which could be a sign of a blockage, infection, or something more serious. About one in 100,000 Americans develop swelling as a result of salivary gland cancers.

This article will explore the causes, risk factors, and treatments of salivary gland swelling.

salivary gland infection

Pornpak Khunatorn / Getty Images

Salivary Gland Function

Salivary glands make a fluid called saliva that moistens your mouth and helps break down food. Saliva also contains antibodies that help keep your mouth clean and free of infection.

Types of Glands

The three major pairs of salivary glands in your mouth are:

Salivary Gland Disorders

Salivary glands that aren't working properly can cause problems ranging from cavities to severe swelling and infection. Some common salivary gland disorders are:

  • Obstruction (small stones that prevent the flow of saliva)
  • Infection
  • Tumors

Clogged Salivary Duct Causes

Obstruction is one of the major causes of infection in the salivary glands. The glands produce saliva, which moves through a small tunnel—or duct—between the gland and your mouth. These ducts are very small and can become blocked by things like:

Once the duct is clogged, the flow of saliva may slow or stop, which can cause swelling, inflammation, and pain, and lead to infection. Impaired saliva flow can also dry your mouth out, making you more prone to developing cavities.

Risk Factors

Some people are at a higher risk of developing salivary gland blockages. Risk factors include:

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • A dry mouth
  • Dehydration
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use
  • Chronic diseases
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Gout (a painful form of inflammatory arthritis)
  • Use of certain medications like diuretics (rid the body of salt and water) and anticholinergics (block the action of a type of neurotransmitter)

Symptoms of an Infection

Symptoms of a salivary gland infection are not limited to pain and swelling.

Signs of a salivary duct infection can also include:

  • A bad taste in your mouth
  • Trouble opening your mouth all the way
  • Dry mouth
  • Fever
  • A feeling that your mouth is being squeezed, especially while chewing
  • Redness on the side of your face or neck
  • Swelling, especially in front of your ears and below your jaw

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will begin to look for the cause of your symptoms by asking about your medical history, what medications you take, and the type of symptoms you have.

They may be able to feel swollen or obstructed glands from the outside of your mouth or throat or see pus draining from the glands on the inside of your mouth.

What Is an Abscess?

An abscess is a collection of pus that can form when you have an infection. Abscesses typically form on the skin and around hair follicles, but they can develop inside your body, too.

Your provider may order an imaging test such as a CT (computed tomography) scan or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to determine the specific cause of the swelling. If several glands are swollen at once, your provider may order additional tests to get a sense of your overall health or check for a viral infection.

Treatment

The severity of the symptoms and cause of the salivary gland infection will dictate the need for treatment.

Self-Care

Home remedies can help relieve salivary gland swelling and pain caused by the infection. Some effective treatments you can try at home include:

  • Placing a warm compress over the affected area
  • Massaging the swollen gland
  • Drinking lots of water
  • Gargling with warm salt water
  • Cleaning your mouth and brushing your teeth frequently
  • Quitting smoking

You may also try over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat pain and inflammation.

Medication

When a bacterial infection is the source of swelling, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics. They might also want to figure out the root cause of the infection. If a salivary gland obstruction is at fault, the blockage may need to be cleared surgically.

If your salivary gland swelling is related to a systemic (body-wide) condition like Sjögren's syndrome (chronic autoimmune disease) or the viral disease mumps, those conditions will have to be treated as well, to prevent repeated episodes.

Surgery 

Removing fluid from the body (aspiration), may relieve salivary gland swelling. During this procedure, a small needle is inserted into the salivary gland or duct to withdraw a buildup of saliva or pus.

Obstruction caused by a stone (mineral buildup), scar tissue, or another material may require a minimally invasive technique called sialendoscopy. During this procedure, a tiny camera and surgical tools are inserted into the gland to remove the blockage.

When more severe blockages, complications, or tumors are the problem, you may need to have a more invasive surgery performed or even consider removing your salivary glands.

Summary

Causes of salivary gland infections can range from an obstruction to cancer. Treatment will depend on the root cause of the problem; swelling caused by infections and obstructions is treated much differently than swelling caused by cancer or other chronic diseases. Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to relieve your discomfort at home, and how to avoid repeated infections or obstructions.

A Word From Verywell

A swollen salivary gland can be painful and make it difficult to chew or even talk. Swelling of the salivary glands can be caused by obstructions of the ducts that release saliva into your mouth, by infections, and a number of other more serious conditions.

There are measures you can take at home to help manage swelling and pain, but you should talk to your provider about what is causing your salivary gland problems, and whether they can be more effectively treated and prevented.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long after treatment begins does a salivary gland infection clear up?

    Antibiotics can usually begin to clear up symptoms of infection after a few days, but it can depend on the severity of your infection and any complications you might have. If you needed aspiration or surgery to clear a blockage in addition to treating your infection, your recovery could take longer.

  • What does a blocked salivary gland feel like?

    A blocked salivary gland can be swollen and painful, but not always. Other symptoms can include trouble opening your mouth or having a funny taste in your mouth.

  • Can you prevent a salivary gland infection?

    You can't prevent all types of salivary infections, but good oral hygiene, drinking enough water, and avoiding smoking can help. Talk to your healthcare provider about prevention strategies if you have chronic dry mouth or other conditions that put you at an increased risk of developing a salivary gland infection.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. What are the key statistics about salivary gland cancer?

  2. American Cancer Society. What is salivary gland cancer?

  3. MedlinePlus. Salivary gland infections.

  4. National Institutes of Health. Saliva & salivary gland disorders.

  5. Cedars Sinai. Parotid duct obstruction.

  6. Ardekian L, et al. The use of sialendoscopy for the treatment of multiple salivary gland stones. Jour Oral Maxillof Surg. January 2014; 72(1):89-95. doi: 10.1016/j.joms.2013.06.206.

  7. American Cancer Society. Surgery for salivary gland cancer.

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.