When healthy and functioning correctly, the salivary glands produce up to a quart of saliva a day. Even in you’ve never given saliva much thought, it plays an important role in keeping your mouth lubricated, helping you to swallow, aiding your body with digestion, and protecting your teeth from harmful bacteria that grow in the mouth.
Your salivary glands are comprised of three primary parts that include: the parotid glands, which are located along the sides of the face; the submandibular glands located on the floor of the mouth; and the sublingual glands beneath the tongue. Your mouth and throat also contain several hundred other minor salivary glands and many small ducts that allow saliva to drain from the mouth.
When you suffer from a problem with the salivary ducts or glands, you could experience symptoms as fever, pain, dry mouth, and swelling of the glands. Even if these symptoms just seem like a minor annoyance, failing to treat a problem with your salivary glands can result in serious damage occurring to your oral health even for patients that wear dentures.
Causes of Salivary Problems
A variety of problems can interfere with the function of the salivary glands or cause a blockage to develop in a duct that prevents drainage from occurring. Some of the more common salivary problems people experience include:
- Salivary stones. A frequent underlying reason for swollen salivary glands, salivary stones result from a buildup of hardened saliva deposits. When salivary stones become large enough, they can begin to impede the saliva drainage from the mouth. When saliva can no longer drain through the ducts, it begins to back up into the salivary gland itself, resulting in swelling and pain. In cases of salivary stones, pain often starts intermittently before getting progressively worse. Unless a dentist clears out the blockage, an infection is likely to occur in the gland.
- Salivary gland infection. When a salivary gland, most frequently the parotid gland, develops a bacterial infection the cause is often the result of a blocked duct. Once an infection develops, a painful lump will form in the gland that drains a foul-tasting pus. While this type of infection is more common in seniors with salivary stones, the condition can develop in babies in the week following their birth. Without treatment, this type of infection can result in high fever, severe pain, and the development of an abscess.
- Viral infections. A viral infection, such as from the flu or mumps, can cause swelling to occur in the salivary glands. The term “chipmunk cheeks” comes from the swelling that results in the parotid glands due to the infection. Mumps is the most common cause of salivary gland infections, resulting in between 30 and 40 percent of all cases of mumps, and usually begins roughly 48 hours after the other symptoms of the infection have manifested.
Impact on Your Oral Health
Saliva plays a vital role in maintaining your oral health. In everybody’s mouth grows plaque, a stick bacteria that produces acids that slowly dissolve tooth enamel. When left unchecked, plaque acids can cause permanent damage to the health of teeth, and accounts as the primary cause of tooth decay and gum disease. Plaque acids are the most harmful to the health of your teeth immediately following eating or drinking foods high in sugar.
Saliva acts as your mouth’s natural defense mechanism against plaque acids by helping to wash clean your teeth after a meal. However, when your mouth fails to produce enough saliva, plaque acids and lingering food particles are left free to remain in your mouth following a meal and can cause more damage to the health of your teeth.
So even if you can ignore the symptoms of your salivary gland problem or have full dentures, it still remains vital that you treat the condition quickly in order to prevent any significant long-term damage from occurring to your oral health.