Parotid gland

What are the parotid glands?

The parotid glands are one of the salivary glands situated in front of the ears. The other two types of salivary gland are the submandibular glands (under the jaw) and the sublingual glands (under the tongue). Together, these glands produce saliva.

What are the main functions of the parotid glands?

The function of the parotid glands, like the other salivary glands, is to produce saliva, which is subsequently drained into the mouth through small ducts.

Saliva secretion is needed to:

  • Keep the mouth lubricated throughout the day
  • Aid speech
  • Help with chewing, swallowing and digesting food properly
  • Protect the teeth

Saliva is made up of a series of enzymes that promote the breakdown of food into smaller substances that eventually end up being absorbed and metabolised by the body.

Complications with the parotid glands

Various problems can affect the parotid glands, and salivary glands in general, usually causing blockages. These include:

  • Salivary stones or sialoliths in the salivary ducts: these are mineral deposits that accumulate in the salivary glands, blocking the flow of saliva into the mouth. This can cause pain, swelling and can become infected if not treated.
  • Infections: viral infections such as mumps or flu can cause swelling of the salivary glands, pain and fever. Bacterial infections of the parotid glands can also cause these symptoms (e.g. staph bacteria), and risk is increased in individuals who are dehydrated or malnourished.
  • Tumours: tumours can develop in the salivary glands and they can be either benign or malignant (cancerous). The most frequent types are pleomorphic adenomas and Warthin’s tumour. These can obstruct the salivary ducts.
  • Sjörgen’s syndrome: this is an autoimmune disorder in which the salivary glands are attacked by the immune system, causing dry mouth and eyes.

Are there any treatments for parotid gland problems?

Treatment of parotid and salivary gland problems depends on the cause.

  • Stones and blockages may pass on their own, however, removal may be required with shockwave treatment (lithotripsy), surgery or probing.
  • Tumours can be removed surgically and may be followed by radiotherapy or chemotherapy if they are cancerous, although this depends on the stage and size of the cancer.
  • Sjörgen’s syndrome treatment consists of relieving symptoms, with chewing gum, avoiding alcohol, staying hydrated, and sometimes taken certain medications.
  • Bacterial infections can be treated with a course of antibiotics.
  • Mumps does not have a specific treatment, however, it will usually resolve in 1-2 weeks. School or work must be avoided to avoid infecting others. Paracetamol and ibuprofen can help to ease symptoms.

What specialist treats parotid gland problems?

The specialist in charge of diagnosing and treating parotid gland and salivary gland problems is usually an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, general surgeon or ENT surgeon. However, due to the variety of gland problems, different specialists may intervene.

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