Salivary Glands

Your salivary glands lubricate your mouth, help you swallow, aid in digestion and help protect your teeth against harmful bacteria. You have three major types of salivary glands, including your sublingual, submandibular and parotid. Common symptoms of salivary gland disorders include fever, headaches and a lump in your cheek or under your chin.


Anatomical location of the parotid gland, submandibular gland, sublingual gland and salivary gland ducts.
You have three major types of salivary glands, including your parotid glands, submandibular gland and sublingual gland.

What are salivary glands?

Your salivary glands produce saliva (spit) and empty it into your mouth through ducts, or small openings. They lubricate your mouth and throat, aid in swallowing and digestion, and help shield your teeth from cavity-causing bacteria.


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What are the three major salivary glands?

You have three major pairs of salivary glands, including your:

  • Sublingual glands:These are below either side of your tongue, under the floor of your mouth.
  • Submandibular glands:Located below your jaw, your submandibular salivary glands consist of two parts: the superficial lobe and the deep lobe. Like your sublingual glands, the saliva produced in your submandibular glands enter your mouth from under your tongue.
  • Parotid glands:Your parotid glands are just in front of your ears. Similar to your submandibular glands, your parotid glands have two parts: superficial and deep. The saliva produced by your parotid glands enters your mouth from small ducts near your upper molars.

Which is the largest salivary gland?

Your parotid glands, located just in front of your ears, are the largest salivary glands in humans.



What is the role of salivary glands?

The main salivary gland function is saliva production. Saliva plays an important role in supporting your oral and overall health. For example, saliva:

  • Keeps your mouth and throat lubricated and comfortable.
  • Moistens food so it’s easier to swallow.
  • Contains an enzyme called amylase, which helps your stomach break down starches in food.
  • Keeps your mouth clean.
  • Helps reduce your risk of cavities and gum disease.
  • Helps maintain the pH balance in your mouth.

How do salivary glands help with other body systems?

Your salivary glands produce saliva, which aids the digestion process. When you eat, the food leaves your mouth and travels down your throat, through your esophagus and eventually makes its way to your stomach. Saliva makes this entire process possible.


What are some interesting facts about salivary glands?

  • If you’re an adult, your salivary glands produce about one to two liters of saliva every day.
  • If you collected your saliva for one year, you could fill a bathtub with it.
  • During the average lifetime, your salivary glands will produce over 23,000 liters of saliva.
  • Your saliva is 99% water. The rest consists of proteins, enzymes, mucus and buffering agents.
  • Just one drop of saliva contains a sample of your complete genetic makeup.
  • Without saliva, you wouldn’t be able to taste your food. The molecules in your food must dissolve in saliva before your taste buds react.
  • Your salivary glands work overtime before you throw up. This is because your stomach contents are acidic, and vomiting can actually harm your throat, mouth and teeth. Saliva counteracts this problem by diluting and neutralizing stomach acid.


Where are my salivary glands located?

In addition to the major salivary glands mentioned earlier, you also have lots of minor salivary glands. These tiny glands are under the lining of your mouth and throat. Each person has up to 1,000 of them. While minor salivary glands are significantly smaller than your major salivary glands, together, they actually produce more saliva than your major glands.

How big are salivary glands?

The size depends on which salivary gland you’re referring to. For example:

  • Each sublingual gland is about the size of an almond.
  • Together, your two submandibular glands are about the size of a walnut.
  • Each parotid gland is slightly smaller than your ear.

Your minor salivary glands, located throughout your mouth, are much smaller — about 2 millimeters in size.

What are salivary glands made of?

Tissue encases each of your salivary glands. The glands themselves consist of fat and acini (cells that secrete fluids).

Conditions and Disorders

What are the common conditions and disorders that affect salivary glands?

There are several conditions and disorders that can affect your salivary glands, including:

  • Salivary gland stones.
  • Salivary gland swelling.
  • Salivary gland infection.
  • Salivary gland dysfunction.
  • Salivary gland tumors.

Salivary gland stones

Salivary gland stones — made from salts found in saliva — are most likely to form if you’re dehydrated or if you take medications that cause dry mouth (xerostomia). These stones can lead to a blocked salivary gland. This can be painful, and it can result in swelling and infection.

Salivary gland swelling

Several different conditions can lead to salivary gland swelling. For example, swollen parotid glands are the hallmark symptom of childhood mumps. (This condition is far less common today due to the MMR vaccine.) Salivary gland swelling is a common symptom of salivary gland malfunction, which involves decreased saliva production. (We’ll explore this in more detail later on.)

Salivary gland tumors — both cancerous and noncancerous — can also cause salivary gland swelling.

Salivary gland infection

The medical term for salivary gland infection is sialadenitis. The majority of salivary gland infections are the result of blocked salivary glands or chronic dry mouth.

Staph infections can also result in sialadenitis. People with anorexia are especially susceptible.

Salivary gland dysfunction

Salivary gland dysfunction refers to any situation where your salivary glands don’t work as they should. In most cases, this means that your salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva. Several factors could lead to a decrease in saliva production (a condition known as dry mouth). These include:

Note: Not all cases of chronic dry mouth are due to salivary gland dysfunction. Dry mouth can also be the result of dehydration, mouth breathing, stress and anxiety.

Salivary gland tumors

Most salivary gland tumors are benign (noncancerous), but sometimes, they can be malignant (cancerous).

Examples of noncancerous salivary gland tumors include:

Examples of salivary gland cancer include:

  • Mucoepidermoid carcinomas.
  • Adenoid cystic carcinomas.
  • Acinic cell carcinomas.
  • Polymorphous adenocarcinomas.
  • Secretory carcinomas.

Treatment for salivary gland tumors usually involves removing the mass. If the tumor is cancerous, further treatment is often necessary and may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy or targeted drug therapy.

What are some common symptoms of salivary gland conditions?

The primary symptom of salivary gland conditions is dry mouth. If you have dry mouth, ask your healthcare provider about treatment options. If medications are causing dry mouth, your provider might be able to switch your prescriptions or decrease your dosages. They may also recommend products that can help keep your mouth lubricated.

What are some common tests to check salivary gland health?

There are several tests that your provider can use to determine the health of your salivary glands. These assessments may include a biopsy, salivary gland scan or additional imaging tests.

Salivary gland biopsy

During a biopsy, your healthcare provider collects cells or tissue samples — usually with a needle — from your salivary glands. The samples are then sent off to a pathology lab for analysis. Minor salivary gland biopsy typically requires a small incision on the inside of your lip to remove a few glands.

Salivary gland scan

If your healthcare provider suspects you have a salivary gland issue, they may recommend a salivary gland scan. This test uses a specialized camera and a radioactive tracer to capture images of your salivary glands.

Before the scan, your provider injects the liquid tracer into a vein in your arm. The liquid moves through your blood and then into your salivary glands. Next, the camera takes pictures that tell your provider how much of the liquid stays in your salivary glands. This test is often used to diagnose dry mouth or salivary gland swelling.


How can I keep my salivary glands healthy?

While you can’t always prevent salivary gland issues, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. For example:

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol.
  • Tell your healthcare provider if medications are making your mouth dry.
  • Practice good oral hygiene.
  • Visit your healthcare provider any time you have signs of salivary gland issues.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Your salivary glands are small organs with a big job. In addition to keeping your mouth lubricated and comfortable, they aid your entire digestive process. Like any part of your body, things can go wrong with your salivary glands. If you notice pain or swelling around your salivary glands — or you develop chronic dry mouth — talk to your healthcare provider. They can determine the cause of your condition and recommend appropriate treatment.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 07/08/2022.

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