What is the parotid gland?
Your parotid glands are major salivary glands. You have two of them, and they’re located just in front of and below each ear.
Like your other major salivary glands (submandibular and sublingual), your parotid glands produce saliva (spit) to keep your mouth lubricated, and to aid in chewing and digestion.
Some people develop parotid gland infections or swelling (parotitis). When this happens, recommended treatments may include antibiotics, warm compresses or parotid gland massage.
What does the parotid gland do?
Your parotid glands produce a specific type of saliva that’s thin and watery. They also release amylase — a protein that helps jumpstart starch digestion.
Saliva plays a key role in oral and overall health. For instance, the saliva produced by your parotid glands:
- Keeps your mouth lubricated.
- Helps with digestion.
- Reduces harmful bacteria in your mouth.
- Helps protect your teeth from cavities.
What’s an interesting fact about the parotid gland?
Your parotid salivary glands produce about 10% of the saliva that’s in your mouth. When you eat, your parotid glands contribute even more saliva — approximately 25%.
Where are my parotid salivary glands located?
Your parotid glands are just below and in front of each ear. You also have two other pairs of major salivary glands — sublingual (under your tongue) and submandibular (under your jaw).
Your parotid gland connects to a tube (called Stensen’s duct) that carries saliva to your mouth, releasing near your upper molar teeth. Your sublingual and submandibular glands connect to a tube (called Wharton’s duct) that transports saliva to the floor of your mouth (under your tongue).
What does the parotid gland look like?
Your parotid gland resembles an upside-down pyramid. It starts out wider near the top and tapers off at the bottom, near your jawline.
Lymph nodes cover the outer part of your parotid gland. The inner grooved surface rests against your jaw and masseter muscle (the muscle that connects your lower jaw to your cheekbone).
Your facial nerve (cranial nerve VII) divides your parotid gland into two lobes: the superficial lobe and the deep lobe.
What color is the parotid gland?
The gland itself is yellowish and is covered with pink connective tissue.
How big is the parotid gland?
Your parotid gland is the largest salivary gland, measuring about 5.8 centimeters long and 3.4 centimeters across.
How much does the parotid gland weigh?
The average parotid salivary gland weighs 14.28 grams.
Conditions and Disorders
What causes swollen parotid glands?
Several health conditions can cause pain and parotid gland swelling, including:
- Sialolithiasis. This is the medical term for calcified stones (calculi) that can develop and block your parotid gland ducts. Sialolithiasis results in painful swelling that worsens when you eat.
- Sialadenitis. This refers to parotid gland infection caused by blockages, bacteria or viruses. Culprits include staph infections and the mumps virus.
- Parotid gland tumors. These can develop in either lobe, causing swelling of your jaw and face. Most parotid gland tumors are noncancerous. But it’s possible to develop cancerous parotid gland tumors.
- Parotid gland cancer. Salivary gland cancers — such as mucoepidermoid carcinoma and adenoid cystic carcinoma — aren’t very common. In fact, they make up about 6% to 8% of all head and neck cancers. But if you develop parotid gland cancer, prompt treatment is necessary to prevent the cancer cells from spreading to your lymph nodes.
What are the symptoms of a blocked parotid gland?
Most parotid gland conditions cause similar symptoms, including:
- Swelling of your face and jaw.
- Pain (sometimes discomfort is worse after eating).
Are there tests to check the health of your parotid gland?
Like most health conditions, a proper diagnosis begins with a physical examination. Your healthcare provider will feel around your parotid glands to see if you’re having any pain or swelling.
If they suspect an issue with your parotid glands, they may request additional tests, including:
- Needle biopsy. During this procedure, your healthcare provider uses a thin needle to collect fluid from your parotid gland. They’ll send the fluid to a lab for testing.
- Imaging tests. Your healthcare provider may request a salivary gland scan using MRI, ultrasound or computed tomography (CT scan).
What are common treatments for parotid gland conditions?
Treatment depends on the underlying cause of your parotid gland condition. For example, if a bacterial infection causes your parotid gland to swell, then your healthcare provider will likely prescribe antibiotics.
If stones are blocking your parotid gland, your healthcare provider may recommend facial massage or sucking on lemon candy to encourage more saliva production. If this doesn’t work, they may try different medications to induce salivary flow. When nonsurgical treatments don’t help, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery to remove the stones.
Parotid gland tumors usually require parotidectomy — surgery to remove part or all of your parotid gland.
People with parotid gland cancer may need surgery to remove the gland and/or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
How do you get rid of a swollen parotid gland?
If your parotid gland is swollen, you may be able to fix the issue by sucking on sour candy. This encourages more saliva flow, and may clear out any blockages. But if the issue continues, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can determine what’s causing parotid gland swelling and design an appropriate treatment plan.
How can I keep my parotid glands healthy?
Keeping your parotid gland healthy involves making sure you have enough saliva to keep your mouth lubricated. Here are some tips to help:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Chew sugarless gum.
- Suck on sugarless candy.
- Avoid smoking.
- Reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake.
- Ask your healthcare provider about saliva substitutes.
Keep in mind, you can’t always prevent parotid gland issues from developing. But the guidelines above can help reduce your risk.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your parotid glands play a major role in oral health and digestion. If you develop parotid gland swelling or infection, it’s important to call your healthcare provider. In many cases, a swollen parotid gland is easily treated with nonsurgical methods. But in some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary. If you have questions or concerns about your parotid gland, talk to your healthcare provider.
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