The Anatomy of Salivary Glands

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Glands are organs that make and release different substances in your body. The salivary glands produce saliva in your mouth. It is possible for these glands to become infected, swollen, or to develop other problems.

This article will explain more about the anatomy, location, and function of the salivary glands.

Woman has inflamed salivary gland

Henadzi Pechan / Getty Images


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

  • Parotid glands: Located in front of your ears and in the cheeks, they are triangular and the largest of the three major glands.
  • Submandibular glands: Located under the chin and walnut shaped, they are the second largest of the three major glands. 
  • Sublingual glands: Located under the tongue and almond shaped, they are the smallest of the three major glands.

In addition, your mouth has thousands of minor salivary glands located in the following sites:

  • Cheeks
  • Tongue
  • Lips
  • Palate
  • Roof of the mouth

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


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

  • Keep the mouth moist
  • Chewing
  • Swallowing
  • Digestion
  • Keep the teeth and mouth clean
  • Prevent infections and cavities in teeth
  • Maintain pH (acid/base) balance in the mouth

Associated Conditions

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

  • Viral infections: Viruses can make the salivary glands swell and become infected.
  • Ranula (cyst): This is a fluid-filled sac that can form in the salivary glands because of an injury, infection, trauma, or surgery.
  • Sialolithiasis: Salivary duct stones can cause pain and swelling.
  • Sialadenitis: This inflammation of the salivary gland causes swelling.
  • Tumors: Benign (noncancerous) or cancerous tumors can form in the salivary glands. The likelihood of malignancy is greater for the minor salivary glands than it is for the major salivary glands.

Other medical conditions that can affect the function of the salivary glands include:

  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS: The virus can cause salivary gland enlargement, fever, pain, and xerostomia (dry mouth).
  • Sjögren’s syndrome: This autoimmune disease affects moisture-producing glands in the body and causes swelling and dry mouth
  • Diabetes: High blood glucose (sugar) may cause salivary gland enlargement and lower saliva production.
  • Hepatitis C: This virus infects the liver and may cause salivary gland swelling.
  • Mumps: This virus causes swelling in the salivary glands and fever. It is preventable with a vaccine.


Your doctor may do the following tests: 

  • Physical exam
  • Dental X-rays
  • Examination of the salivary glands with a scope
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A detailed computerized X-ray scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Detailed images taken using magnetic fields
  • Positron emission tomography (PET scan): Imaging that uses a radioactive tracer to look for cells that are active
  • Ultrasound: Imaging that uses sound waves
  • Fine-needle biopsy: Procedure to remove cells for examination in a lab
  • Salivary gland scan with a camera and radioactive tracer 


The salivary glands have the important function of making saliva in your mouth. There are major and minor salivary glands that produce saliva, which helps with digestion, lubrication, and cleaning. These glands can develop a variety of medical conditions and problems.

A Word From Verywell

The salivary glands play an important role in your oral health. However, problems can develop in the glands, which may lead to complications if left untreated. When a gland's function is affected, you may notice different symptoms.

Sometimes it is not clear what is causing your symptoms or why you do not feel well. It is important to reach out to your healthcare provider to get the correct diagnosis in these situations. Make sure you discuss all of your symptoms and how often they occur.  

Since many medical conditions can affect your salivary glands, your diagnosis process may take time. Consider reaching out to support groups or loved ones for help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are all the major salivary glands the same size?

    No, the salivary glands are of different sizes. The parotid glands are the largest and submandibular glands are the second largest of the major glands. The sublingual glands are the smallest of these, and there are thousands of tiny minor glands.

  • How big are the minor salivary glands?

    The minor salivary glands are very small and can only be viewed with a microscope.

  • What are the common symptoms of salivary gland problems?

    You may have the following symptoms:

    • Dry mouth
    • Problems opening your mouth
    • Pain
    • Swelling
    • Fever
    • Bad taste in your mouth
  • Who can develop salivary gland problems?

    Salivary gland problems affect people of any sex. You can develop medical conditions associated with these glands at any age. However, problems tend to be more common among older adults and those who have other medical conditions.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Salivary glands anatomy.  

  2. MedlinePlus. Salivary gland disorders.  

By Lana Bandoim
Lana Bandoim is a science writer and editor with more than a decade of experience covering complex health topics.