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About the salivary glands

Find out about how the salivary glands work and what happens when they are affected by cancer.

The salivary glands

The salivary glands make spit (saliva). Saliva helps us to:

  • keep our mouth and throat moist
  • swallow food
  • digest food
  • protect against infections in the mouth and throat
  • protect our teeth

There are two main types of salivary glands called the:

  • major salivary glands
  • minor salivary glands

Major salivary glands

We have 3 main pairs of major salivary glands, the:

  • parotid glands – just under the lobes of your ears
  • sublingual glands – under your tongue
  • submandibular glands – under each side of your jawbone
Diagram showing the position of the salivary glands

Minor salivary glands

As well as the 3 major pairs of salivary glands we have over 600 smaller, minor salivary glands throughout the lining of the mouth and throat.

Salivary gland cancer

Most salivary gland cancers start in the parotid glands – around 8 in 10 salivary gland cancers start here (80%).

Just over 1 in 10 (10%) start in the submandibular glands. The rest start in either the sublingual glands or the minor glands.

Salivary gland cancer is a rare cancer. It is much more common to have a non cancerous (benign) lump in these glands.

Around 3 out of 4 tumours in the parotid gland (75%) are benign.

Half (50%) of the tumours found in the submandibular glands are benign. Sublingual gland tumours are very rare, but are often cancer.

The cells of the salivary glands

There are a number of different types of cells in the salivary glands. Cancer can start in any of these cells.

Your exact type of salivary gland cancer will depend on which cell type your cancer started in.

How common it is

Salivary gland cancer is a rare cancer. About 690 people are diagnosed in the UK each year.

It is slightly more common in men than women. The number of people getting salivary cancer has slowly increased in the last few years.

We don’t know what causes salivary gland cancer but several factors can increase your risk.

Last reviewed: 
24 Jun 2014
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