parotid gland function

Our mouth is made up of complex structures that are unseen, yet are essential in contributing to daily activities like chewing and speaking.

One among them is salivary gland. Saliva is one of the crucial elements of the oral cavity that lubricates the mouth, allows digestion of food in the mouth, and protects the teeth from bacteria. (1)

One of the largest salivary glands that contribute to the production of saliva in the mouth is parotid salivary gland.

Parotid salivary gland is located on either side of the cheek. It is roughly pyramidal with a salivary duct that opens near the upper molar.

Parotid salivary gland is often considered as the silent group of the salivary gland, yet it is one of the vital aspects of our mouth.

Like any other component of the oral cavity, salivary glands are also susceptible to certain clinical complications.  

For example, salivary gland swelling, salivary duct stones, dry mouth, and painful episodes. The cause can vary for each salivary gland problem.

Today’s article will highlight some of the unique characteristics of the parotid salivary gland and some common clinical problems associated with it.

What is parotid salivary gland?

Parotid salivary gland is a crucial part of the major salivary gland group. This pair of the salivary gland is located on either side of the cheek in front of the ears.

Parotid glands are the largest among all other salivary glands and contribute about 75% of the total salivary secretion in the mouth. The saliva is transported with the help of parotid salivary duct called the Stensen’s duct. (2)

In some individuals, accessory parotid glands may also be present around the main gland structure.

What is its structure?

Parotid glands are a pair of pyramidal shaped serous salivary glands.  This major salivary gland secretes the saliva into the vestibule of the mouth through its salivary duct.

Parotid glands are unseen but can be easily felt on either side by placing the hand in front of the ear along the cheek and below the angle of the mandible. A network of nerves and blood vessels passes through the parotid salivary gland.

One primary nerve innervation is the facial nerve that controls all the sensory reflexes of the face.

Some anatomic variations of the parotid gland may include the development of accessory parotid tissue that can be found close to the central gland.

What is the function of parotid salivary gland?

The primary function of the parotid salivary gland, as mentioned above, is to secrete the majority of the salivary production in the mouth. Saliva is an essential part of the oral cavity that aids in the following activities – (3)

  • Cleans the mouth
  • Washes away the food particles stuck on the tooth surface
  • Clears the plaque from the surface of the tooth
  • Initiates digestion of food in the mouth
  • Controls bacterial load in the mouth

Around 75% of the saliva produced is stored and secreted by the parotid papilla. This function helps to maintain a backup of saliva, which becomes useful during oral conditions like dry mouth.

Some clinical problems associated with parotid salivary gland

Many problems can occur that may obstruct the functions of the parotid gland and duct. Some of the most common clinical issues can be categorized as follows–

Parotid gland swelling

Tumors and cysts are quite a common finding in salivary glands. Inflammation of the gland can lead to severe symptoms that are unbearable by the patient. Parotid gland swelling can occur due to several reasons. Some of them are –

  • Mumps – Mumps is a highly contagious infection caused by a paramyxovirus. The symptoms include fever, nausea, pain on both sides of the cheek and ear, reduced salivary secretion, difficulty in opening the mouth, and headaches. Mumps vaccine has proven to help cure this condition.
  • Neoplasms – tumors and cyst formations obstruct the salivary flow and at the same time can lead to massive swelling of the parotid glands. Diagnosis of such conditions can be confirmed by biopsy. Malignant tumors can also cause skin lacerations and ulcerations on the surface of the skin. (4)

Sialolithiasis

Sialoliths are salivary gland stones. These are a collection of small calcified mass that dislodges in the salivary duct. The symptoms include salivary flow obstructions, pain, and discomfort while chewing and speaking.

Often they also contribute to mild swelling of the parotid gland. Treatment of sialolithiasis includes surgical removal of the stone from the duct.

Infections

Parotid gland infections, more or less, constitute the symptoms similar to those of parotid gland swelling. Some of the common parotid gland infections include –

  • Acute/ chronic bacterial infections
  • Viral infections like mumps and HIV/AIDS

Treatment of infections is symptomatic and often subsides with medications.

Other problems associated with parotid glands are –

  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Tuberculosis

How can parotid salivary gland problems be prevented?

The best way to maintain good oral health is always to follow preventive care therapy.

  • Drink plenty of water to allow continuous salivary secretion and flushing of parotid ducts. This prevents any stone formations
  • Maintain good oral hygiene by brushing regularly and cleaning the areas around your teeth, gums, cheeks, and tongue.
  • Anti-bacterial mouth wash is an excellent addition to your daily dental routine. It will help to control the bacterial load in the mouth and get rid of any infectious organisms.
  • Regular dental check-ups ensure total healthcare.

Take away message

Parotid salivary glands are one of the largest group of major salivary glands in the mouth. Majority of the saliva secretion occurs from this gland.

These salivary glands are primarily located on either side of the cheek with its duct running through the mucosal layers and opening next to the upper molar.

Like any other oral tissue in the mouth, parotid salivary glands can also face some clinical issues that may affect the regular chewing activity of the individual.

Some of them include parotid gland swelling, salivary duct stones, dry mouth, and infections that may cause foul smelling secretions.

Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment by the dentist is the key to maintain the health of the salivary gland. Moreover, these measures allow continuous salivary flow in the mouth.

Now that you’ve read about one of the main components of the mouth, be aware of the signs and symptoms take precautionary measures, and live healthily.