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.
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.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
You have three major pairs of salivary glands, including your:
Your parotid glands, located just in front of your ears, are the largest salivary glands in humans.
The main salivary gland function is saliva production. Saliva plays an important role in supporting your oral and overall health. For example, saliva:
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.
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.
The size depends on which salivary gland you’re referring to. For example:
Your minor salivary glands, located throughout your mouth, are much smaller — about 2 millimeters in size.
Tissue encases each of your salivary glands. The glands themselves consist of fat and acini (cells that secrete fluids).
There are several conditions and disorders that can affect your salivary glands, including:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While you can’t always prevent salivary gland issues, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. For example:
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.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/08/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.