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Salivary glands: want to learn more about it?

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Salivary glands

The salivary glands are exocrine glands that are positioned in the head, in and around the oral cavity and secrete their salivary contents into the mouth. Their function is to help keep the oral mucosa protected and lubricated. They also help in the initial stages of digestion during mastication of food, so that a food bolus is created and ready to be swallowed for further processing.

They contribute to digestion through the enzymes they excrete with saliva, mainly amylase that starts the digestion of carbohydrates. The glands vary widely in their size, but also are classified based on the nature of the saliva they excrete.

Key facts
Function Secrete saliva for initial phases of digestion and for protection and lubrication of oral cavity
Types of glands Serous: parotid gland
Mucous: sublingual gland, minor salivary gland
Mixed: submandibular gland
Parotid gland Location: between ramus of mandible and sternocleidomastoid muscle
Excretory duct: Stensen's duct (opens on the buccal wall at the level of maxillary second molar)
Submandibular gland Location: beneath the  tongue
Excretory duct: Wharton's duct (opens at sublingual papilla under tongue)
Sublingual gland Location: beneath the sublingual fold
Excretory duct: multiple ducts that open along sublingual folds
Minor glands Location: bucca, labia, lingual mucosa, soft palate, hard palate
Clinical relations Cysts, inflammation, tumors

This article will discuss the anatomy and clinical importance of the salivary glands.

The salivary glands are divided into the major and minor salivary glands. 

  • The major glands are much larger in size and are a collection of exocrine tissue that secretes as a whole into a salivary duct rather than acting individually and therefore end up producing a much larger amount of saliva per day than the minor glands.
  • The main role of the minor glands is to lubricate the walls of the oral cavity, while digestive and protective saliva is produced by the major glands.

Are you an interactive learner? Then this salivary glands quiz is a handy study tool for you.


Saliva is a seromucinous liquid that has several major functions within the oral cavity which include lubrication, digestion, antimicrobial action, buffering, hormone regulation and taste sensation. It contains 99.5% water and the rest is electrolytes, mucus, glycoproteins, enzymes and antibacterial compounds.

There are two major types of saliva that are secreted from the salivary glands and they are serous and mucous. The submandibular gland secretes both types in a 3:2 ratio of serous to mucous respectively. The parotid gland is the only gland that secretes purely serous saliva, while the sublingual gland and minor salivary glands secrete mainly mucous saliva.

The total daily output of saliva in an adult is between 1-1.5 liters of saliva.

Major glands

Parotid gland

The parotid gland is the largest of the major salivary glands and it sits bilaterally in between the ramus of the mandible and the sternocleidomastoid muscle. It produces between 25-30% of the total daily salivary output which is released through Stensen’s duct (parotid duct) whose orifice can be seen on the buccal wall at the level of the maxillary second molar.

Parotid gland in a cadaver. Notice how the gland is penetrated by the facial nerve (CN VII).

Submandibular gland

The submandibular gland is the second largest of the major salivary glands and like all three of them it is a paired gland. It produces by far the largest amount of saliva of all and account for up to 70% of the total daily output. Wharton’s duct (submandibular duct) opens at the sublingual papilla under the tongue.

Want to learn more about the submandibular gland? Check out our resources.

Sublingual gland

Lastly, the sublingual gland is the smallest of the major salivary glands and is unique in the fact that it has several ductal openings that run along the sublingual folds. It also secretes the smallest portion of saliva per day out of the major glands at just five percent.

Sublingual gland (lateral view)

Master the structure and function of the sublingual gland with our study unit:

Minor glands

The minor salivary glands account for approximately 1% or less of the total daily salivary output. They can be found in patches around the oral cavity such as the bucca, the labia, the lingual mucosa, the soft palate, the lateral parts of the hard palate, the floor of the mouth and between the muscle fibers of the tongue.

They amount to approximately 800-1000 individual glands in total.

Clinical aspects

Salivary gland cysts can develop due to injuries, tumours, infections or salivary stones that can block the flow of saliva. Since it cannot escape into the ducts it remains within the tissues which start to swell as the saliva builds up.

This condition is usually painless but can cause problems when eating or speaking. Removal of the underlying cause will correct the problem and recurrence is uncommon.

Salivary glands: want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

What do you prefer to learn with?

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references


  • Neil S. Norton, Ph.D. and Frank H. Netter, MD, Netter’s Head and Neck Anatomy for Dentistry, 2nd Edition, Elsevier Saunders, Chapter 1 Development of the Head and Neck and Chapter 6 Parotid Bed and Gland, Page 186 to 196 and Chapter 13 Oral Cavity, Page 366 to 371.
  • Frank H. Netter, MD, Atlas of Human Anatomy, Fifth Edition, Saunders - Elsevier, Chapter 1 Head and Neck, Subchapter 6 Oral Region, Guide Head and Neck: Oral Region - Salivary Glands, Page 35 and 36.
  • Salivary Gland Problems. WebMD, LLC. http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/salivary-gland-problems-infections-swelling.
  • A. Giorgi: Salivary Gland Infections. Healthline Networks, Inc. http://www.healthline.com/health/salivary-gland-infections.


  • Sublingual gland (lateral view) - Paul Kim
  • Parotid gland (cadaveric dissection) - Prof. Carlos Suárez-Quian
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