A salivary gland infection can develop when harmful bacteria or viruses build up in the salivary glands. These are located in the head and neck and produce saliva. It typically causes swollen salivary glands and pain in the parotid gland and submandibular gland.

Salivary gland infections most commonly develop in the two main glands: the parotid gland, which is in front of the ear, and the submandibular gland, which is under the chin.

A salivary gland infection, or sialadenitis, can stem from a blockage in a saliva duct that causes inflammation. The infection can lead to pain, tenderness, and swelling.

This article covers the types, causes, and treatments of salivary gland infections.

The infection may be bacterial or viral. Staphylococcus aureus is most common bacterial cause of salivary gland infections.

Other bacteria and viruses that can enter these glands and cause an infection include:

  • Streptococci bacteria
  • Coliform bacteria
  • the mumps virus
  • HIV
  • coxsackievirus
  • parainfluenza types 1 and 2
  • the herpes virus
  • the influenza A virus

A salivary gland infection typically develops due to a reduced flow of saliva or a blockage in a gland. Blockages can cause inflammation, making the glands more vulnerable to infection.

If salivary glands are inflamed, they tend to produce less saliva. The saliva sometimes builds up in the glands, allowing the concentration of bacteria or viruses within the saliva to increase.

A salivary gland obstruction may involve:

  • salivary gland stones
  • salivary duct kinks
  • tumors
  • abnormally formed salivary glands

Anyone can develop a salivary gland infection, but they are most common in older adults.

A reduced flow of saliva can occur in people who:

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that dry mouth can also occur as a result of:

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Illustration by Jason Hoffman

A person has three pairs of major salivary glands, with one of each pair located on either side of the face. Any of these six glands can develop an infection.

The major salivary glands are the:

  • Parotid glands: These are inside the cheeks and extend from the top of the ears into the jaw. These are the largest salivary glands.
  • Submandibular glands: These are behind the lower jaw, under the tongue and chin. These are the second largest salivary glands.
  • Sublingual glands: These are on either side of the tongue, deep under the floor of the mouth. These are the smallest of the major salivary glands.

The parotid and submandibular glands tend to become infected most often.

If a salivary gland infection develops very quickly, a doctor may call it “acute.” Infections related to obstructions or narrowed tubes may develop more gradually.

A person with a salivary gland infection may have:

  • a fever
  • chills
  • pain and swelling around the affected area
  • pus in the mouth
  • a foul taste in the mouth
  • difficulty opening the mouth, chewing, or swallowing

If a tumor has caused the obstruction that has led to the infection, the person may be able to feel a hard, firm, immobile lump in the affected area.

Seek emergency medical attention if the symptoms:

  • are very severe
  • interfere with eating, drinking, swallowing, or breathing
  • are very painful
  • do not get any better with hydration, good oral hygiene, and other first approaches to treatment

The symptoms may differ from person to person and depend on the severity of the inflammation and the specific glands affected.

A salivary gland infection may last around a 1 week, though some minor swelling may linger for a few weeks.

Acute salivary gland infections rarely cause additional complications.

A salivary gland infection may resolve on its own, without the use of medication. A medical professional should assess the situation and recommend the best approach.

If the infection is bacterial, they may recommend antibiotics. If it is viral, they may recommend antiviral medications.

If an abscess, a buildup of pus, is present, it may require draining. Blockages in the glands may also require additional treatment. For example, a healthcare professional may gently massage the area to remove a salivary gland stone.

Some people may need surgery to repair or remove kinks or narrowed tubes that affect the flow of saliva.

If a salivary gland infection has stemmed from an autoimmune condition, the person may need additional treatment.

A doctor may recommend:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • eating hard candies or drinking lemon juice to increase the flow of saliva
  • applying warm compresses
  • massaging the glands
  • practicing good oral hygiene

A person might also try:

  • avoiding foods that stick to the roof of the mouth
  • eating with small bites and chewing thoroughly
  • avoiding alcoholic or acidic drinks and commercial mouthwashes

Anyone with swelling in the areas of the salivary glands should visit a healthcare professional.

They may:

  • Take a medical history.
  • Examine the swollen area.
  • Order laboratory tests.

If a doctor suspects that a tumor is contributing to the infection, they may request a fine needle biopsy, which involves taking a tissue sample and sending it to a lab for analysis.

The doctor might also need a biopsy to check for some autoimmune conditions, including Sjögren’s disease.

If a person may have a blockage in a salivary gland, the doctor may also order imaging tests, such as:

  • an ultrasound
  • a CT scan
  • an MRI scan
  • a salivary endoscopy, also called sialoendoscopy, which involves using a thin, tube-like tool with a camera
  • sialography, which involves injecting a dye that shows up on X-rays

A doctor may recommend drinking less alcohol or quitting smoking. Maintaining good oral hygiene can also reduce the risk of salivary gland infections. A person should:

  • Brush the teeth twice a day.
  • Floss daily.
  • Rinse out the mouth with water after eating or drinking sweetened or carbonated drinks or foods.
  • Have a dental cleaning every 6 months.

A person should also avoid dehydration. This might involve:

  • sipping fluids regularly throughout the day
  • chewing sugarless gum
  • sucking on sugarless hard candies
  • limiting alcohol
  • avoiding tobacco products

A salivary gland infection may clear up without treatment, though medications and home care techniques can help.

A severe or chronic salivary gland infection requires ongoing medical care, especially if the infection stems from an underlying medical condition.

Consult a medical professional if the infection:

  • does not respond to primary care
  • causes a white or red patch to form
  • results in bad breath
  • results in difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the tongue
  • occurs with blood in saliva or phlegm

Below are some frequently asked questions about salivary gland infections:

What causes submandibular lymph nodes to swell?

Swelling around the submandibular glands may occur due to the following causes:

  • bacterial or viral infections
  • obstruction
  • nutritional disorders, such as vitamin deficiency
  • Sjögren’s disease

Can submandibular lymph nodes be cancerous?

Cancerous tumors can drain into a person’s submandibular lymph nodes and require surgery during cancer treatment. People should speak with a doctor if concerned about cancer for a proper diagnosis.

Can a person normally feel submandibular lymph nodes?

The submandibular glands are behind the lower jaw, under the tongue and chin. A person may be able to feel them when they touch this area.

They may also feel more prominent if a person has an infection, which can cause swelling and tenderness.

What are the symptoms of a submandibular lymph node infection?

Symptoms of infection in the submandibular gland include:

  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • a bad taste in the mouth
  • fever
  • chills
  • difficulty opening the mouth or swallowing

A salivary gland infection occurs when bacteria or viruses build up in these glands due to a reduced flow of saliva, which may stem from a blockage. A person may experience a fever and chills, as well as pain and swelling in the affected area.

Treatment depends on the cause, and it may involve medication. Drinking plenty of fluids, sucking on sugarless hard candies, and applying a warm compress can help.

Anyone who finds eating difficult or has symptoms that do not resolve within about 1 week should seek medical attention.