Understanding Blocked Salivary Glands: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
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Table of Contents
- Causes of Blocked Glands
- Risk Factors
- How to Detect a Problem
- Treatment Options
- Possible Complications
Blocked salivary glands often occur because of a blockage in parts of the parotid gland. When this happens, the flow of saliva is compromised to the extent it can’t pass normally from the parotid gland into the mouth.
The parotid gland is one of the primary salivary glands in the mouth, and it wraps around your jaws and is responsible for saliva production. Saliva serves as a lubricant for the mouth and greatly aids digestion. When blocked, it can result in gland inflammation.
On its own, the parotid duct produces saliva even before eating begins. It is sensitive to the sights and smells of food. Saliva production can start if others are eating near you or if you smell food that soon will come your way.
But if the duct is blocked – a condition called parotid duct obstruction – it does not release saliva. Instead of going into the mouth, it builds up in the parotid gland, resulting in pain and swelling. In extreme cases, it results in infection of the salivary gland and duct. This condition is more prevalent in men and rare in children.
Causes of Blocked Salivary Glands
Parotid duct obstruction can be caused by several factors, including:
- Calcium and minerals that cause salivary gland stones (this is the most prevalent risk factor)
- Mucus plugs
- Oral infection
- Development of abnormal cells
- Scar tissue
Who Is More at Risk of Blocked Salivary Glands?
Men are more likely than women to develop blocked glands, as are people older than 65 and those who tend not to take care of their oral hygiene.
Although several known conditions increase the risk of developing blocked glands. Among them:
- Parotid gland inflammation, caused by infection
- Decreased food consumption
- Prolonged use of water pills (diuretics)
- Anticholinergic medications (atropine)
- Injury or trauma to the parotid gland
- Habitual smoking
Anything that leads to less saliva production or that affects the viscosity of saliva makes people more at risk for developing a salivary gland issue. Being dehydrated is harmful because it tends to make saliva thicker and less able to move effectively through the mouth.
How to Detect Blocked Salivary Glands
It’s easy to know if you have a blocked salivary gland because symptoms should be obvious. You may develop a sudden swelling and pain around the back of your jaws. Or you may experience only swelling or only pain. Symptoms vary from one person to another and may disappear after a short time.
However, the symptoms may turn severe during mealtimes when the parotid gland naturally produces more saliva. Otherwise, your salivary glands may be blocked by an object such as salivary glands stones, or tiny food particles and this may disappear on its own. If this is the case, you may not experience the symptoms again for some time.
If your parotid gland stays blocked for several weeks, it can stop producing saliva altogether. When this occurs, the gland grows firm or stiff, but it may cease being swollen or painful. It can trigger complications that affect your overall health.
Experts urge you to visit a doctor as soon as you notice abnormal pain and swelling around the back of your jaw.
Diagnosis of Blocked Salivary Glands
Diagnosing a blocked salivary gland begins with an extensive health history analysis. The doctor or oral professional will thoroughly examine your mouth and prod the outside skin around your mouth to determine if it's sore or tender. If you have salivary gland stones, the doctor may be able to feel them while conducting the exam.
Such an extensive examination will help them rule out similar possible symptoms such as parotid gland inflammation or similar conditions. The doctor may also use imaging and X-rays to perform the diagnosis especially if they are not able to find the salivary gland stone during the exam. Possible diagnosis options include:
- CT Scans. This is the most preferred type of testing used to diagnose blocked salivary glands. Computer technology like X-rays is recommended for creating cross-sectional images of the insides of your mouth. The images will then be analyzed and evaluated to establish the most likely outcome.
- X-rays. These electromagnetic radiation waves help create visual images of your internal organs and other structures to aid a proper diagnosis.
- Ultrasounds. High-frequency sound waves help to identify abnormalities within the body's tissues and organs.
- Sialographies. This testing procedure involves the use of X-rays to observe your salivary gland. It is effective in identifying other causes of blocked salivary glands besides the common salivary stones.
Available Treatment Options for Blocked Salivary Glands
Treatment of blocked salivary glands depends on your overall health and the sum of your presenting symptoms. It also centers on the severity of the condition. Your healthcare provider may introduce treatment options such as:
- High fluid intake or encouraging you to take more fluid
- Applying moist heat on the affected area in your mouth
- Massaging the salivary gland or parotid duct
- Encouraging you to suck on sweets or candies to boost saliva production
- Prescribing pain medication
- Advising you to stop taking medicine that causes low saliva production (only if possible)
It’s important to remember that symptoms of blocked salivary glands may disappear faster after a few days with the above treatment options. However, if your condition persists even after trying any of the above solutions, your doctor may recommend the following additional treatment options:
- Lithotripsy. This therapy utilizes shock waves to cause the stones to disintegrate.
- Sialendoscopy and laser lithotripsy. This is another method used to break the salivary gland stones especially those larger than 4 mm.
- Wire basket retrieval. This treatment procedure is used to remove the blocking stones through the parotid duct.
- Sialoendoscopy. This is an alternative procedure used to access the stone via the parotid duct.
- Open surgery. This plan is usually a last resort after all of the above options fail. It entails the removal of the damaged parotid gland
If you develop severe complications from blocked salivary glands, you may also require specialized treatment. The doctor might recommend other treatment options. However, after the blockage is removed your parotid gland will continue to function normally.
Possible Complications of Parotid Gland Obstruction
In some cases, the blocking of the salivary glands produces an infection of the gland and duct. This is especially common for older people ages 60 and older. If you develop a fever, you will develop one specific symptom – a fever.
This may further accelerate your pain and your doctor may prescribe alternative solutions such as antibiotics. Often you may be able to overcome these symptoms with antibiotics unless you develop a severe infection.
One good example is the infection of the skin's deep layers. This may result in an abscess, a pus-filled infection around the neck or salivary gland. If such symptoms persist beyond seven days, you might want to consult with an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT or otolaryngologist).
If you notice any of the following symptoms, which persist past seven days, call or visit your doctor.
- When you develop a high fever or abnormal pain around your neck coupled with an oral infection
- When you have trouble with saliva secretion even during meals
- When you experience pain during meals
Parotid Duct Obstruction. (February 2021). Health Library.
Salivary Gland Disorders – Symptoms, Causes & Treatment (October 2020). MGA Dental.
What to Know About Salivary Stones. (July 2018). Medical News Today.
Salivary Gland Disease and Tumors. Cedars Sinai Hospital.