There are distinct differences between the symptoms from a salivary gland infection and those from cancer.

First off, an infection of the salivary glands is far more common than is a malignancy.

The incidence rate of salivary gland cancer is one to eight people per 100,000 in the U.S.

Though the disease can occur at any age, the mean age of diagnosis is 64.

Five Year Survival Rates

• Stage I 91%
• Stage II 75%
• Stage III 65%
• Stave IV 39%

Sialadenitis is the medical term for an infectious disorder of the saliva-producing glands. An infection will cause dramatic symptoms, while a malignant tumor will keep a low profile.

“Salivary gland infections usually pop up in a matter of hours to days and present with swelling, pain, redness and tenderness,” explains Gene Liu, MD, MMM, President, Chair, Department of Surgery; Chief, Division of Otolaryngology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Group.

The abrupt appearance of very noticeable symptoms is a reassuring sign that the cause is not malignant.

“Sometimes there will be a yucky taste in the mouth,” continues Dr. Liu. “Frequently the swelling and pain worsen with food or drink.

“Salivary gland cancers usually grow slowly over many weeks to months and present with a lump or mass. There is almost never any redness or tenderness, and no symptoms fluctuate with food or drink.

“Almost always, these differences make it pretty easy to distinguish infection from cancer.”

A painless lump, especially that has gradually increased in size, is suspicious for something really bad. However, a salivary gland tumor may also be benign.

One more thing: Sudden onset of dry mouth – which makes it feel that one’s mouth is stuffed with cotton, with no relief from fluid intake – is not a sign of cancer. Most likely it’s caused by a salivary gland “stone,” a harmless condition.

Sudden dry mouth, despite the patient being well-hydrated, can be brought on by acute stress.

If the cause is a minor backup caused by little crystals or “stones” blocking the gland, a good solution is to place a rind of lemon peel in the back of the mouth between the upper and lower teeth to trigger increased salivation, which would likely drive out the debris.

“Ultimately, repeated infections can be extremely frustrating and can even sometimes require surgery to drain an abscess or remove a stone,” says Dr. Liu. “Infections, however, do not lead to cancer.”

Dr. Liu’s clinical areas of focus cover a broad range including surgery of the head and neck, sinuses and thyroid, and disorders of the ears, salivary glands and vocal cords.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  
Top image: Shutterstock/Tyler Olson