What Causes a Swollen Jaw & How to Treat It
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A swollen jaw could be a result of abnormalities within the structure of the jaw, issues with the teeth or gums, or swollen glands under the chin. Other swollen jaw causes include viral infections, like the mumps. a traumatic injury, or swollen lymph nodes under the jaw. Read below for more causes, related symptoms, and treatment options.
The swollen jaw symptoms you're having explained
Many structures that contribute to jaw function. The jaw is made up of two bones, the maxilla, or upper bone, and the mandible, or lower bone. The temporomandibular joint connects the mandible to the skull and allows for the chewing motion of the jaw. Abnormalities of the jaw bones or the temporomandibular joint can contribute to swelling. Problems with the teeth, gums, or the glands that produce saliva can cause swelling in the area of the jaw.
Common accompanying symptoms of a swollen jaw
Symptoms that may present with a swollen jaw include the following.
Why is your jaw swollen?
The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.
The following are common infectious causes of jaw swelling.
- Dental infection: An infection that starts in the teeth or gums can spread throughout the tissues of the mouth, causing swelling that can be in the jaw area. This type of infection can become severe and cause difficulty with opening the mouth, fever, and difficulty breathing.
- Bone or skin infection: A local infection of a jaw bone or the overlying soft tissues can cause swelling.
- Salivary gland infection: An infection of a salivary gland can cause sudden swelling and tenderness.
- Venous infection: Infection of the jugular vein in the neck can cause tenderness and swelling near the jaw, in addition to systemic symptoms such as fever and chills.
- Systemic infection: Viral infections, including mumps, can cause swelling of salivary glands. Systemic infections can also cause enlargement of lymph nodes in the neck. Either of these can give the jaw a swollen appearance.
Trauma to the jaw can result in swelling.
- Jaw injury: Trauma in the region of the jaw can cause a jaw bone fracture or a collection of blood within the tissue. Either of these will lead to swelling.
- Tooth extraction: Jaw swelling is a common reaction to the removal of a tooth.
Tumors of the jaw can result in swelling.
- Jaw bone tumors: Both benign and malignant tumors can start in the jaw bones, leading to swelling. Malignant tumors from other parts of the body can also metastasize to the jaw.
- Salivary gland tumors: A benign or cancerous tumor can develop in one of the salivary glands, causing swelling without pain. A tumor of one of the major salivary glands can potentially interfere with an adjacent nerve, causing a decreased sensation and facial movement.
- Lymphoma: One type of lymphoma usually presents with rapid jaw swelling, particularly among African patients.
Other causes that can result in jaw swelling include the following.
- Salivary duct stone: Chronic, intermittent swelling and tenderness over the jaw can occur if there is a stone blocking passage of saliva through the duct of a salivary gland.
- Arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis can affect the temporomandibular joint, resulting in swelling along with pain while chewing.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Salivary duct stone (sialolithiasis)
A salivary duct stone is the most common disorder of the salivary glands (where you make spit). They can range in size from tiny particles to stones that are several centimeters in length.
Top Symptoms: swelling on one side of the face, swollen jaw, painful face swelling, spontaneous jaw pain, painful jaw swelling
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Tooth abscess (infection)
A tooth abscess is a collection of infected material (pus) in the center of a tooth. It is due to bacterial infection.
Top Symptoms: severe jaw or tooth pain, swollen jaw, jaw stiffness, tooth pain that gets worse with hot, cold, or sweet beverages, warm and red jaw swelling
Symptoms that always occur with tooth abscess (infection): severe jaw or tooth pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Chronic inflammation of the salivary gland (parotitis)
The parotid glands are large salivary glands that sit inside each cheek, over the jaw in front of each ear. Chronic recurrent parotitis is a condition that causes repeated cycles of swelling in these glands, causing swelling and occasionally dry mouth or a strange taste.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: jaw pain, moderate fever, swollen jaw, dry mouth, swelling behind the ears
Symptoms that always occur with chronic inflammation of the salivary gland (parotitis): swollen jaw
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Infected wisdom tooth (pericoronitis)
Pericoronitis of the 3rd molar is an infection of the gums surrounding the 3rd molar (wisdom tooth). It almost never happens to normal teeth because wisdom teeth take a long time to break the gums (erupt). It's believed that once the wisdom tooth breaks the surface of the gums, the bacteria in the mouth get into the gums at that spot and cause an infection. This is also worsened by food particles that build up in the area.
Top Symptoms: possible wisdom tooth pain, moderate tooth pain, tooth pain that makes chewing difficult, severe tooth pain, mild tooth pain
Symptoms that always occur with infected wisdom tooth (pericoronitis): possible wisdom tooth pain
Urgency: In-person visit
Treatments for your swollen jaw
Most causes of jaw swelling do not require urgent evaluation. However, some types of infection or injury can be severe or even life-threatening without quick treatment. In some situations, emergency management may be necessary to protect your airway.
When it is an emergency
Seek emergency treatment for your swollen jaw if you experience the following.
- You are having difficulty swallowing, speaking, breathing, or opening your mouth
- Your swelling is rapidly progressive: Meaning it is increasing steadily within one day
- You have systemic symptoms: Such as fever and fatigue.
- You experienced trauma: You have jaw swelling following blunt trauma, such as in a car accident.
- You have severe swelling: You have an untreated tooth infection and now are having severe swelling.
When to see a doctor
In some cases, even though emergency treatment isn't necessary, you may need evaluation and treatment of your swollen jaw. Make an appointment with your physician if you experience any of the following.
- You notice discomfort and swelling near the jaw that occurs when you eat
- You have painless swelling that is slowly increasing in size
- You have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and now notice pain with chewing
- You have continued jaw swelling three days after the removal of a tooth
Your medical provider may prescribe one of the following treatments.
- Antibiotics to treat an infection
- Removal of a salivary gland or a stone that is blocking a salivary duct
- Further diagnostic workup and referral to a specialist: If cancer is suspected
- Treatment of an underlying medical condition: Such as rheumatoid arthritis
Some home treatments may help with a swollen jaw, including the following.
- Treatments for an infected salivary gland: Your doctor may provide antibiotics. Warm compresses can help with discomfort, and lemon drops can stimulate saliva production.
- Drink plenty of water in order to stay well-hydrated
- Gently massage the swollen area
- Use an ice pack: If you recently had a tooth extraction or other type of dental work, apply an ice pack for about 20 minutes at a time.
FAQs about swollen jaw
Can dental problems cause a swollen jaw?
Yes, dental problems can cause swelling in the area of the jaw. It is common to experience swelling and tenderness after having a tooth removed. If an infection that starts in a tooth is not treated, it can spread to deeper tissues in the mouth, and cause jaw swelling. Impaired breathing, difficulty swallowing, and difficulty opening the mouth may also occur.
Can a swollen jaw be caused by cancer?
In some cases, a swollen jaw can be due to cancer. Burkitt lymphoma is an aggressive type of cancer that often starts with rapid jaw or facial swelling, particularly when it occurs in people from African countries. If Burkitt lymphoma is the suspected cause of jaw swelling, an evaluation, including imaging and blood tests, are required. Other types of cancer that originate in the jaw bones or metastasize from other parts of the body can cause jaw swelling, which may be visible inside or outside the mouth.
Why does my jaw swell up when I eat?
If you notice that one side of your jaw becomes swollen and tender only when you eat, a salivary duct stone may be to blame. Eating causes the salivary glands to increase the production of saliva. A stone blocking the duct that usually delivers saliva from the gland to the mouth causes saliva to build up, causing swelling and pain. You may be able to feel the stone if you palpate the inside of the mouth in the swollen area.
Why is my jaw swollen on just one side?
Some causes of swelling will affect only one side of the jaw. Tumors, injury, or an infected salivary gland or tooth may occur on one side but is unlikely on both sides. Mumps, a viral infection that affects the large parotid salivary glands, can cause swelling on one or both sides.
Why is my jaw swelling increasing rapidly?
Rapid swelling of the jaw can be a sign of a dangerous infection, particularly if other symptoms are present such as tenderness, fever, and difficulty opening the mouth. Rapid swelling can also indicate an aggressive type of cancer. If your swelling continues to worsen, you should see a physician. Emergency treatment may be necessary to stabilize an infection or prevent side effects from a growing tumor.
Questions your doctor may ask about swollen jaw
- Is your swollen area warm and red?
- If you touch the swollen area, is there pain?
- Do you take good care of your teeth?
- Are your symptoms worse while eating?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Lauren is a resident physician in family medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She earned her medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College. Lauren also has an interest in teaching as well as experience with college tutoring and writing MCAT preparatory materials. She believes family medicine challenges her to maintain a broad field of medical knowledge and she hopes to work in an academic setting in the future. In her free time, Lauren enjoys running, reading, and visiting historic sites.