What Can Cause Salivary Gland Infections?
Salivary gland infections are a painful health condition that interfere with normal oral function and can lead to serious health complications. When these glands stop working properly, the results can include dry mouth, foul-tasting pus discharged into the mouth, severe pain and swelling that keeps the mouth from opening all the way. Viruses and bacteria are the two underlying culprits for infected salivary glands. The treatment for this condition is based on whether the germs involved are viral or bacterial. That’s why the first thing your health care provider will want to figure out is what’s causing your infection. Here’s an overview of the diseases and pathogens that are implicated in most cases of infected salivary glands.
Viruses That Cause Salivary Gland Infections
Children and adults who have not received the MMR vaccine are at risk of developing infected salivary glands from the mumps. This virus targets the parotid salivary glands just in front of the ears. When these swell up, they give the patient’s face the classic “chipmunk cheek” appearance associated with mumps. However, only about four out of 10 mumps victims have this particular symptom.
Influenza is another viral infection that can cause swelling of the salivary glands. It may affect the glands in the cheeks or those under the jawline (submandibular salivary glands). In diseases like the flu, swelling in the lymph nodes is often the underlying cause of the salivary gland inflammation.
Other causes of viral salivary gland infections include:
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV) – This is a very common virus in the herpes family that usually causes no symptoms. However, in individuals with a compromised immune system, it can lead to inflammation.
- Epstein-Barr virus – This virus can cause contagious mononucleosis. It is common among children and adolescents.
- Coxsackie and Echovirus – These are self-limiting enterovirus infections caught from exposure to fecal matter. They primarily affect children and rarely cause symptoms in adults.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – This condition leaves the immune system open to a huge variety of viral and bacterial infections that can affect the salivary glands.
Bacteria That Cause Salivary Gland Infections
There are a number of bacteria species that can contribute to salivary gland infections. Staphylococcus aureus (the kind that causes skin infections) is the most likely cause. However, the infection may also be due to:
- Streptococcus viridans and pyogenes (Two species of bacteria that often cause no symptoms but that may lead to Strep throat and other problems)
- Haemophilus influenza (Sometimes called bacterial influenza. There is a vaccine called Hib that prevents infection with H. influenza)
- Escherichia coli (Commonly known as E. coli, some strains are harmless while others can cause severe food poisoning and systemic infection)
There are also many anaerobic bacteria that typically live in the mouth that can cause infection if they become too numerous. In most cases, bacterial salivary gland infections respond quickly to antibiotics.
Risk Factors for Infected Salivary Glands
What makes salivary glands prone to infection? Skipping the mumps or flu vaccine is the most common risk factor for viral infections. Bacterial infections are sometimes the result of a blockage or constriction in the salivary duct. Salivary stones (crystallized minerals that accumulate in the duct) are a known cause of blockage in many older adults. Other risk factors include:
- Dehydration leading to overgrowth of oral bacteria (saliva helps limit bacteria in the mouth)
- Radiation therapy to the head or neck that damages the salivary glands
- Immunosuppressive drugs (chemotherapy for cancer patients or anti-rejection drugs for organ recipients)
- Health problems that impair the immune system (diabetes, arthritic, etc.)
- Chronic dry mouth from any underlying cause, including certain medications
Some patients have multiple risk factors for salivary gland infections. Restoring overall health may reduce the risk of recurrence in these individuals.