Function and Diseases of the Parotid Gland

Basic Facts About One of the Salivary Glands

The salivary glands.
The salivary glands. Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG/Getty Images

The parotid gland is one of the three major salivary glands in the body. You have two parotid glands, each one located in front of the ear on the face. In addition to the parotid gland, you also have two other major salivary glands, called the sublingual and submandibular glands. All three glands have a tube attached to them, called a duct, that transports saliva from the gland to the mouth.

Function of the Parotid Gland

The function of the parotid gland and other two major salivary glands is to produce and secrete saliva, a substance that helps break food down so it can be digested properly.

Saliva also helps to defend against bacteria and prevent cavities.

Diseases of the Parotid Gland

When a person's salivary glands do not function properly and stop or produce too little saliva, a person will develop a dry mouth — this is called xerostomia. There are a number of potential causes for xerostomia including radiation therapy, an autoimmune disease called Sjogren's syndrome, or medications like antihistamines or chemotherapy. Dry mouth can significantly impact a person's quality of life. It can affect swallowing, create a burning feeling in the mouth, and predispose a person to cavities. Treatment includes artificial saliva and medications that stimulate saliva production.

Another potential parotid gland ailment is obstruction, which usually occurs when a stone blocks the tube that carries saliva to the mouth. Obstruction causes pain and swelling on the side of the face of the affected gland.

Not drinking enough fluids or taking a medication that reduces the amount of saliva production can trigger a stone formation.

If the obstruction is due to a stone, treatment entails drinking lots of fluids, massaging the gland, and sucking on a lemon drop or vitamin C lozenge to trigger saliva production.

If this does not work, a doctor can use an instrument to remove the stone.

Other less common causes of obstruction in the parotid gland include:

  • A person's dentures compressing the duct opening
  • Tooth eruption as a result of trauma
  • Mucous plugs or foreign bodies that get into the duct
  • A neoplasm (tumor) or swollen lymph node that blocks the duct

Less commonly, an infection may form as a result of obstruction. This may cause a fever, redness, and/or an increase in pain. In the case of a parotid gland infection, antibiotics are needed. If an abscess is present, it needs to be drained by a doctor.

Sometimes the parotid gland may become enlarged or swollen because of an underlying disease, like diabetes or HIV. In children, the most common salivary gland infection is mumps, which causes enlargement of both parotid glands.

Tumors of the Parotid Gland

The parotid gland can also develop growths or masses, called tumors. These tumors are often benign or non-cancerous, but can be malignant. Malignant parotid tumors are a type of salivary gland cancer and are considered to be rare.

What to Do If You Are Concerned by your Parotid Gland

If you are concerned, please see your doctor. There are a number of potential causes and while most of them are not worrisome, a swollen parotid gland could indicate an underlying disease process. Your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat doctor for further evaluation.

Sources:

American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. (2015). Salivary Glands: Patient Health Information. Retrieved December 30th 2015.

Capaccio P, Torretta S, Ottaviani F, Sambataro G & Pignataro L. Modern management of obstructive salivary disease. Acta Otorhinolaryngol Ital. 2007 Aug;27(4):161-72.

Kagami H, Wang S, & Hai B. Restoring the function of salivary glands. Oral Dis. 2008 Jan;14(1):15-24.

Wilson KF, Meier JD, & Ward PD. Salivary gland disorders. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Jun 1;89(11):882-8.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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