The medical term for salivary stones is sialoliths. When they block the salivary glands, this is known as sialolithiasis.
Salivary stones are rarely a cause for concern, and people can often get rid of them at home. However, some stones may require treatment from a doctor.
In this article, we explain what salivary stones are and discuss their symptoms and causes. We also explore home remedies, when to see a doctor, medical treatment, and possible complications.
What are salivary stones?
The salivary glands in the mouth produce a liquid called saliva. Saliva protects the teeth, helps with chewing and swallowing food, and initiates the process of digestion.
The mouth contains hundreds of minor, or small, salivary glands. There are also three pairs of major, or large, salivary glands. These large glands include the:
- parotid glands, which sit below the ears on the inside of the cheeks
- submandibular glands at the bottom of the mouth near the jawline
- sublingual glands, which are underneath the tongue
Salivary stones are small deposits of calcium and other minerals. They can form in the ducts of any type of salivary gland. Larger stones can block the flow of saliva and cause the glands to swell.
According to research from 2012, more than 80 percent of salivary stones form in the submandibular gland, while 6–15 percent occur in the parotid gland, and 2 percent are in the sublingual and minor salivary glands.
Salivary stones do not usually cause symptoms when they are forming, and they can sometimes disappear on their own. The stones can vary in size, but they are usually hard and white.
Larger stones can block the flow of saliva in the gland. This blockage can cause saliva to build up behind the stone, which can lead to pain and swelling.
Common symptoms of blocked salivary glands include:
- a sore or painful lump under the tongue
- pain or swelling below the jaw or ears
- pain that increases when eating
Salivary stones can sometimes also lead to infection in or around the affected gland. Symptoms of infection can include fever and the formation of pus around the stone.
The doctor will look inside the person’s mouth to examine any painful areas and feel the size and shape of the stones. They may also request an X-ray or CT scan to determine the number of stones and their exact location.
Doctors are sometimes able to massage or press on a salivary stone to dislodge it from the gland. They may also use an ultrasound machine, which emits high-frequency sound waves that can break the stone into smaller pieces and make it easier to remove.
Salivary stones that are large or situated deep within the salivary gland may be harder to remove.
In these cases, a doctor may need to perform a sialendoscopy. This procedure involves using an endoscope to examine the inside of the mouth and widen the affected salivary duct, allowing the stone to pass through. As this procedure can be uncomfortable, the doctor will use a local anesthetic to numb the person’s mouth first.
Doctors can usually remove salivary stones that are less than 2 millimeters wide without surgery. For larger or more difficult-to-remove stones, a person may need to go to the hospital. Surgery for salivary stones involves making a small incision in the person’s mouth to remove the stone.
For people with recurring stones, a doctor may recommend having surgery to remove the salivary gland. There are multiple salivary glands in the mouth, so people can still produce enough saliva if they lose a gland.
Surgery to remove the salivary gland does have some risks, which people can discuss with their doctor.
Calcified stones can sometimes form in the salivary glands of the mouth and may cause pain or discomfort. They are rarely serious, and a person can often remove the stones themselves.
A person should see a doctor if they are unable to remove the stones at home or if the stones keep coming back. It is also essential to see a doctor if the area around the stone becomes infected or if an abscess forms.
Doctors are often able to remove the stones by massaging them or using an endoscope. However, for very large or difficult-to-remove stones, they may recommend surgery. In some cases, a person may need to have surgery to remove the affected salivary gland.
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