It's probably safe to say that most of us don't give much thought to our salivary glands, and why would we? These unassuming little glands, responsible for the production of saliva so vital to the digestive process, are only visible under close inspection, and most of us will go our entire lives without any kind of salivary gland illness. However, when a salivary gland malfunctions, it can be a surprisingly painful and debilitating condition to deal with. One of the ways a salivary gland can have its function impaired is by a bout of parotitis.
What is parotitis, and what causes it?
Parotitis is the term given when one or more of your salivary glands becomes inflamed. The inflammation can have a number of causes:
- Infection -- Infectious parotitis can be caused by a number of pathogens, such as the mumps virus or the common Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. In rare cases inflammation of the salivary glands can be an early warning sign of tuberculosis infection, although this is generally not a concern in developed countries.
- Autoimmune disorders -- Some autoimmune disorders can cause chronic parotitis that varies in intensity. Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder which causes the body's white blood cells to attack and damage the salivary glands, is closely associated with chronic parotitis.
- Blockage -- In some cases inflammation of a salivary gland is caused by a simple blockage of the salivary duct, which can be caused by salivary stones, excessive mucous or a tumour (malignant or benign).
What are the symptoms of parotitis?
The symptoms of parotitis can vary depending on the cause and severity of the inflammation, but parotitis generally displays the following symptoms:
- Swelling -- This may be accompanied by a localised redness of the mucous membranes around the affected gland.
- Bad taste in mouth
- Xerostomia (dry mouth) -- This is sometimes accompanied by an inexplicable and painful burning sensation known as burning mouth syndrome.
How can parotitis be treated?
Like the symptoms of parotitis, parotitis treatments are varied, and the treatments your dentist uses will largely depend on the cause of the inflammation. Common treatments for parotitis include:
- Antibiotics -- Naturally these are only effective if your parotitis is bacterial in origin. A simple course of oral antibiotics is usually enough to clear up a salivary gland infection, although topical antibiotic gels can also be applied directly to the affected salivary gland.
- Stimulation or replacement of saliva production -- In chronic cases of parotitis saliva production may be impinged even while no other symptoms present themselves. Medications that stimulate increase saliva production can be used to counteract this -- alternatively, your dentist can provide you with a saliva substitute to use during periods of excessively dry mouth.
- Blockage removal -- If your parotitis is caused by internal blockage, your dentist may be able to remove the blockage without resorting to surgery. They can try to remove a stone or a mucous plug with tweezer and probes, or attempt to break up a stone inside the salivary duct before removing it with tweezers. If surgery is necessary (for instance if the blockage is caused by a tumour or particularly large stone) the salivary gland may have to be removed, although minimally invasive techniques for removing a blockage without sacrificing the gland may be viable in less severe cases.