Significance of Swollen Salivary Glands: What Do They Mean?

Swollen salivary glands can be the result of a number of medical conditions. In most cases, none of these causes are life threatening, and most are easily treated with antibiotics. The salivary gland, also known as the parotid gland, is located in the back of the mouth, right below the ear. There are also two minor glands, the submandibular and the sublingual, located beneath the jaw. While it is most common for the paranoid gland to swell, swelling in any of the three glands can be a symptom of a health condition.

Obstruction and Infection

One of the most common causes for swelling is an obstruction. Salivary gland stones may block a part of the ducts in the gland, which can lead to a bacterial infection. This is known as Sialadentis. The symptoms include swelling, pain and tenderness at the site of the infection, fever, and redness. Diagnosis usually involves an MRI or a CT to look for the obstruction. In more advanced cases, pus may be draining into the mouth from the salivary duct, and this can be gathered and tested for a diagnosis. Treatment involves a course of antibiotics to get rid of the infection and warm compresses. Any abscesses that develop may require draining.

Autoimmune Disease

The autoimmune disease Sjogren’s syndrome can also cause swelling in the salivary glands. Other symptoms include dry mouth and eyes. With this condition, the body’s immune system begins to attack the salivary glands, the same way they would react to an infection. Although blood tests can help with a diagnosis, the only way to come up with a definite diagnosis is to perform a biopsy of the paranoid gland. Warm compresses, massage and hydration can help to relieve mild cases of Sjorgen’s syndrome. Treatment for severe cases usually involves immune suppressants, or, as a last resort, the surgical removal of the paranoid gland.

Tumors and Cancer

Another possible cause of swelling is a salivary gland tumor. These are initially small bumps along the gland, and may be tender, but they will grow considerably larger if and when the tumor begins to grow. This can be diagnosed through a biopsy. Most of these tumors are benign, or mostly harmless, and are easily removed through surgery. In some cases, the tumors can become malignant, developing into cancer. There are almost a dozen types of salivary gland cancer; all are treated through surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Depending on the stage of the cancer when treatment begins, the five year survival rate is between 96% (in the first stage) and 37% (in the fourth and final stage of the cancer).

In most cases, swollen salivary glands are a symptom of a mostly harmless infection or inflammation as the result of a salivary gland stone. A course of antibiotics, staying hydrated to help flush out the infection, and warm compresses are all that is required to treat this condition. The only time that it may lead to any serious health complication is if the swelling is the result of a cancerous tumor, in which case, as long as the cancer is caught in the first two or three stages, the chance of survival is still very likely.


Sjogren’s Syndrome/treatment from Written by Dr. Hoffman, accessed November 2009.

Sialadentis: Oral and Pharyngeal Disorders from Unknown Author. Accessed November 2009.

American Cancer Society: What is Salivary Gland Cancer? from Accessed November 2009.

Salivary Glands: What’s Normal, What’s Not Normal from Unknown author. Accessed November 2009.