Anatomy of the salivary glands

Glands are the organs that make and release different substances in your body. The salivary glands produce saliva in your mouth. These glands can become infected, swollen, or have other problems.

This article will explain in detail the anatomy, location and function of the salivary glands.


Your body has two types of salivary glands in your mouth: major salivary glands and minor salivary glands. The three major pairs of salivary glands, one pair each on either side of the face, are:

  • Parotid glands: Located in front of the ears and cheeks, triangular in shape, the largest of the three glands.
  • Submandibular Gland: Located under the chin, it is walnut-shaped and is the second largest of the three major glands.
  • Sublingual Gland: Located under the tongue, it is almond-shaped and is the smallest of the three major glands.

Additionally, your mouth has thousands of minor salivary glands located in:

  • cheek
  • Tongue
  • lips
  • taste
  • top of mouth

The salivary glands are connected to tubes called ducts that carry the saliva they produce into your mouth.


The purpose of the salivary glands is to make saliva and help:

  • keep mouth moist
  • chew
  • swallow
  • Digestion
  • keep teeth and mouth clean
  • Prevent tooth infections and cavities
  • Maintains pH (acid/base) balance in the mouth

Related conditions

Different medical conditions can affect the salivary glands and cause problems, such as:

  • Viral infection: Viruses can make the salivary glands swell and become infected.
  • Ranula (cyst): This is a fluid-filled sac that forms in the salivary glands due to injury, infection, trauma, or surgery.
  • salivary stone disease: Salivary duct stones can cause pain and swelling.
  • sialadenitis: Inflammation of the salivary glands can cause swelling.
  • Tumors: Benign (noncancerous) or cancerous tumors can form in the salivary glands. Minor salivary glands are more likely to develop malignancies than major salivary glands.

Other disorders that can affect salivary gland function include:

  • HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS: The virus can cause swollen salivary glands, fever, pain and dry mouth (dry mouth).
  • Sjögren’s syndrome: This autoimmune disease affects the glands in the body that produce water and causes swelling and dry mouth
  • Diabetes: High blood sugar (sugar) may lead to enlarged salivary glands and reduced saliva production.
  • Hepatitis C: This virus infects the liver and can cause swelling of the salivary glands.
  • Mumps: This virus causes swollen salivary glands and fever. It can be prevented by vaccines.
READ ALSO:  Anatomy of the cuboid


Your doctor may perform the following tests:

  • physical examination
  • Dental X-ray
  • Examine the salivary glands with a scope
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: a detailed computed X-ray scan
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Detailed images taken using a magnetic field
  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan): Imaging that uses radiotracers to look for active cells
  • Ultrasound: Imaging using sound waves
  • Fine needle biopsy: a procedure in which cells are removed for examination in the laboratory
  • Salivary gland scan using camera and radiotracer


The salivary glands have the important function of making saliva in the mouth. There are primary and secondary salivary glands that produce saliva, which aids in digestion, lubrication, and cleansing. These glands can develop various medical conditions and problems.

VigorTip words

Salivary glands play an important role in your oral health. However, problems with the glands can occur, which can lead to complications if left untreated. You may notice different symptoms when the gland’s function is affected.

Sometimes it is not clear what is causing your symptoms or why you are not feeling well. In these cases, it is important to contact your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis. Make sure to discuss all symptoms and how often they occur.

Because many medical conditions can affect your salivary glands, your diagnosis process may take some time. Consider seeking help from a support group or a loved one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are all major salivary glands the same size?

    No, salivary glands vary in size. The parotid gland is the largest gland and the submandibular gland is the second largest major gland. The sublingual glands are the smallest of them all, with thousands of tiny little glands.

  • How big are the minor salivary glands?

    Minor salivary glands are so small that they can only be seen with a microscope.

  • What are the common symptoms of salivary gland problems?

    You may have the following symptoms:

    • dry mouth
    • opening problem
    • pain
    • swelling
    • fever
    • It doesn’t taste good in your mouth
  • Who gets salivary gland problems?

    Salivary gland problems affect people of any gender. You can develop diseases associated with these glands at any age. However, the problem tends to be more common in older adults and people with other medical conditions.