The glands are found in and around your mouth and throat. We call the major salivary glands the parotid, submandibular, and sublingual glands.
They all secrete saliva into your mouth, the parotid through tubes that drain saliva, called salivary ducts, near your upper teeth, submandibular under your tongue, and the sublingual through many ducts in the floor of your mouth.
Besides these glands, there are many tiny glands called minor salivary glands located in your lips, inner cheek area (buccal mucosa), and extensively in other linings of your mouth and throat. Salivary glands produce the saliva used to moisten your mouth, initiate digestion, and help protect your teeth from decay.
As a good health measure, it is important to drink lots of liquids daily. Dehydration is a risk factor for salivary gland disease.
Salivary gland problems that cause clinical symptoms include:
Diagnosis of salivary gland disease depends on the careful taking of your history, a physical examination, and laboratory tests.
If your doctor suspects an obstruction of the major salivary glands, it may be necessary to anesthetize the opening of the salivary ducts in the mouth, and probe and dilate the duct to help an obstructive stone pass. Before these procedures, dental x-rays may show where the calcified stones are located.
If a mass is found in the salivary gland, it is helpful to obtain a CT scan or a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Sometimes, a fine needle aspiration biopsy in the doctor’s office is helpful. Rarely, dye will be injected through the parotid duct before an x-ray of the gland is taken (a sialogram).
A lip biopsy of minor salivary glands may be needed to identify certain autoimmune diseases.
Treatment of salivary diseases falls into two categories: medical and surgical. Selection of treatment depends on the nature of the problem. If it is due to systemic diseases (diseases that involve the whole body, not one isolated area), then the underlying problem must be treated. This may require consulting with other specialists. If the disease process relates to salivary gland obstruction and subsequent infection, your doctor will recommend increased fluid intake and may prescribe antibiotics. Sometimes an instrument will be used to open blocked ducts.
If a mass has developed within the salivary gland, removal of the mass may be recommended. Most masses in the parotid gland area are benign (noncancerous). When surgery is necessary, great care must be taken to avoid damage to the facial nerve within this gland that moves the muscles face including the mouth and eye. When malignant masses are in the parotid gland, it may be possible to surgically remove them and preserve most of the facial nerve. Radiation treatment is often recommended after surgery. This is typically administered four to six weeks after the surgical procedure to allow adequate healing before irradiation.
The same general principles apply to masses in the submandibular area or in the minor salivary glands within the mouth and upper throat. Benign diseases are best treated by conservative measures or surgery, whereas malignant diseases may require surgery and postoperative irradiation. If the lump in the vicinity of a salivary gland is a lymph node that has become enlarged due to cancer from another site, then obviously a different treatment plan will be needed. An otolaryngologist—head and neck surgeon can effectively direct treatment.
Removal of a salivary gland does not produce a dry mouth, called xerostomia. However, radiation therapy to the mouth can cause the unpleasant symptoms associated with reduced salivary flow. Your doctor can prescribe medication or other conservative treatments that may reduce the dryness in these instances.
Salivary gland diseases are due to many different causes. These diseases are treated both medically and surgically. Treatment is readily managed by an otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeon with experience in this area.