There are many possible causes of a swollen jaw. Most are easily treatable, and some require no treatment at all.

However, swelling in the jaw can sometimes indicate a more serious underlying health condition that requires prompt treatment.

This article outlines several possible causes of a swollen jaw, as well as the treatment options available.

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Tonsillitis is one possible cause of a swollen jaw.

Tonsillitis is the medical term for inflammation of the tonsils.

The tonsils are two soft pads of tissue that sit at the back of the throat. Their job is to prevent bacteria and other harmful organisms from entering the body through the mouth or nose.

Tonsillitis can cause swelling in the neck, which may extend up to the jaw. Other symptoms may include:

Treatment

Tonsillitis symptoms usually go away on their own within 3–4 days. In the meantime, the following home treatments may help ease the symptoms:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking plenty of cool fluids
  • taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to alleviate pain
  • sucking throat lozenges or using anesthetic throat sprays

Tonsillitis that occurs as a result of a bacterial infection may require antibiotic treatment. A person should see a doctor if their symptoms are severe or last for longer than 4 days.

Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat and tonsils. It is caused by a type of bacterium called group A Streptococcus.

People with strep throat may experience swelling in the lymph nodes of the neck and jaw. Some other common signs and symptoms of strep throat include:

  • a sore throat
  • pain when swallowing
  • red, swollen, or pus-streaked tonsils
  • small red spots on the roof of the mouth

People may sometimes develop other symptoms, such as:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • a fever

Treatment

Some people test positive for strep throat but do not develop any symptoms and are unlikely to pass it on to others. In such cases, treatment is not necessary.

People who do show symptoms and have a positive test will need antibiotic treatment to clear the bacterial infection.

In some cases, a person may develop an abscess around the tonsils. If the abscess does not respond to antibiotic treatment, a health professional may need to drain it.

A peritonsillar abscess, or a “quinsy,” is a pus-filled abscess that develops between a tonsil and the wall of the throat.

Quinsies are usually caused by the same bacteria responsible for strep throat. They can also develop as a complication of tonsillitis, particularly in older children, adolescents, and young adults.

People who develop a peritonsillar abscess may experience swelling in the face, particularly around the jaw. Some other symptoms may include:

  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • a sore throat
  • a muffled voice
  • difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth wide
  • a headache
  • chills or a fever

Treatment

A doctor will prescribe oral antibiotics to treat the bacterial infection. If the infection is severe, a health professional may need to administer the antibiotics intravenously.

In some cases, the abscess might persist despite antibiotic treatment. In these cases, a health professional may need to drain the abscess.

If a person has been unable to eat or drink, they may require intravenous fluids to prevent or treat dehydration.

Measles, mumps, and rubella are highly contagious viruses that can all cause swelling in the lymph nodes around the jaw.

These viruses were once common in the United States, particularly in children. However, they are now much rarer due to the widespread use of effective vaccinations.

The following table outlines some of the symptoms associated with measles, mumps, and rubella.

VirusSymptoms
Measlesa fever
a rash
a cough
a runny nose
red, watery eyes
Mumpsa fever
swollen salivary glands
muscle aches
headaches
tiredness
a loss of appetite
Rubellaa fever
a rash
a sore throat
red, itchy eyes

Treatment

There are no specific treatments for measles, mumps, or rubella. The table below shows the usual duration of illness for each of these viruses.

VirusDuration of illness
Measles7–10 days
Mumps1–2 weeks
Rubella1 week or under

The following home remedies may help ease the symptoms of measles, mumps, or rubella:

  • getting plenty of bed rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • taking over-the-counter pain relievers and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • applying a warm or cool compress to swollen glands
  • closing the drapes or dimming the lights to help reduce eye discomfort

These viruses are highly contagious and can spread through tiny sneeze or cough droplets in the air. People should therefore avoid coming into contact with others while symptoms are present.

The best way to avoid contracting measles, mumps, and rubella is to receive an MMR vaccination. These are safe and highly effective at preventing infection.

Mononucleosis, or “mono,” is another type of viral infection that can cause swelling of the lymph nodes within the neck and around the jaw. Some other symptoms include:

  • a sore throat
  • a fever
  • tiredness and fatigue

The Epstein–Barr virus causes most cases of mononucleosis. This virus is common among teenagers and young adults.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for mononucleosis. However, the symptoms tend to go away within 2–4 weeks.

The following home treatments may help alleviate the symptoms:

  • getting plenty of bed rest
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by Borrelia. Tiny parasites called ticks carry Borrelia bacteria and can transmit them to humans through tick bites.

The characteristic symptom of Lyme disease is a circular, target-like rash around a tick bite. The rash usually develops within 30 days of the bite taking place.

As the condition progresses, people may develop additional symptoms. Some people may develop symptoms affecting the jaw, such as:

  • pain, stiffness, or swelling of the jaw muscles
  • pain in the jaw joint
  • limited jaw movement
  • popping sounds in the jaw when opening or closing the mouth
  • a misaligned bite

Some other potential symptoms of Lyme disease include:

Treatment

Antibiotics are the first line of treatment against Lyme disease. People who begin treatment in the early stages of the condition usually make a rapid and full recovery.

Those with cardiac or neurological symptoms may require intravenous antibiotics.

Cysts are sacs of tissue that contain fluid or solid material. Cysts can develop anywhere in the body. A jaw cyst is a cyst that forms inside the jawbone or around the roots of a tooth.

Most jaw cysts are caused by a decaying or broken tooth, or a tooth that is embedded deep inside the jawbone. As the cyst grows, it may cause the following symptoms:

  • numbness or tingling in the lips, gums, or teeth
  • loosening of nearby teeth
  • weakening of the jawbone
  • a lump or swelling in the jaw

Treatment

Surgery will usually be necessary to remove a jaw cyst. The surgeon may also remove any broken, damaged, or embedded teeth that caused the cyst to develop.

Following surgery, antibiotics may be necessary to prevent infection. A person will also need to undergo follow-up X-rays to check that the bone is healing correctly.

A thyroid nodule is a lump that develops in a thyroid gland. The thyroid glands sit at the base of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple and above the breastbone. Their job is to make hormones for the rest of the body.

Thyroid nodules are common, but it is not usually clear what causes them. Two known risk factors include hypothyroidism and iodine deficiency.

Most thyroid nodules do not cause symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

Around 90% of thyroid nodules are harmless. However, a small number of thyroid nodules are cancerous.

Treatment

If the thyroid nodule is benign and does not cause any problems, it may not require any treatment. However, a doctor may recommend follow-up imaging scans to check the size and shape of the nodule.

If the nodule produces too much of a hormone, a doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • drug therapy
  • radioactive iodine treatment
  • surgery

Surgery will be necessary to remove a thyroid nodule that contains cancer cells. According to the American Thyroid Association, most thyroid cancers are curable and rarely cause life threatening complications.

Thyroid cancer can cause swelling of the neck or jaw. Other head and neck cancers, as well as oral cancers, can also cause these symptoms.

Some other potential signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers include:

  • a growth that feels hard or irregular in shape
  • a sore that does not heal
  • persistent pain in the neck, throat, or ears
  • unexplained weight loss
  • fatigue

Sometimes, a cancer from elsewhere in the body can spread to the lymph nodes in the neck or jaw. This can also result in swelling in these areas.

Treatment

The treatment options for cancer vary depending on the cancer’s type and severity. When possible, health professionals will want to remove the cancerous growth using surgery. Other types of treatment may include radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Many causes of a swollen jaw do not require medical treatment. However, a person should see a doctor if the swelling persists, worsens, or is accompanied by any of the following:

  • symptoms of a bacterial infection
  • symptoms of Lyme disease following a tick bite
  • symptoms of a jaw cyst
  • possible symptoms of cancer, such as a distinct lump in the jaw or neck or a sore that does not heal
  • difficulty opening the mouth
  • difficulty breathing

There are many possible causes of a swollen jaw. Most are harmless and tend to clear up with minimal or no treatment.

However, a person should see a doctor if the swelling persists, worsens, or is accompanied by more worrying symptoms.

Though rare, a swollen jaw can sometimes be a symptom of cancer. Certain cancers are highly treatable if a person begins treatment in the early stages.

A person should therefore see their doctor if they are concerned about any lumps or swellings in or around their jaw.