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Salivary gland tumors

Definition

Salivary gland tumors are abnormal cells growing in the gland or in the tubes (ducts) that drain the salivary glands.

Alternative Names

Tumor - salivary duct

Causes

The salivary glands are located around the mouth. They produce saliva, which moistens food to help with chewing and swallowing.

There are 3 main pairs of salivary glands. The parotid glands are the largest. They are located in each cheek in front of the ears. Two submandibular glands are under the floor of the mouth under both sides of the jaw. Two sublingual glands are under the floor of the mouth. There are also thousands of small salivary glands lining the rest of the mouth.

Salivary glands empty saliva into the mouth through ducts that open at various places in the mouth.

Salivary gland tumors are rare. Swelling of the salivary glands is mostly due to:

The most common type of salivary gland tumor is a slow-growing noncancerous (benign) tumor of the parotid gland. The tumor gradually increases the size of the gland. Some of these tumors can be cancerous (malignant).

Symptoms

Symptoms may include any of the following: 

  • Firm, usually painless swelling in one of the salivary glands (in front of the ears, under the chin, or on the floor of the mouth). The swelling gradually increases.
  • Difficulty moving one side of the face, known as facial nerve palsy.

Exams and Tests

An examination by a health care provider or dentist shows a larger than normal salivary gland, usually one of the parotid glands.

Tests may include:

  • X-rays of the salivary gland (called a ptyalogram or sialogram) to look for a tumor
  • Ultrasound, CT scan or MRI to confirm that there is a growth, and to see if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck
  • Salivary gland biopsy or fine needle aspiration to determine whether the tumor is benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous)

Treatment

Surgery is most often done to remove the affected salivary gland. If the tumor is benign, no other treatment is needed.

Radiation therapy or extensive surgery may be needed if the tumor is cancerous. Chemotherapy may be used when the disease has spread beyond the salivary glands.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Most salivary gland tumors are noncancerous and slow growing. Removing the tumor with surgery often cures the condition. In rare cases, the tumor is cancerous and further treatment is needed.

Possible Complications

Complications from the cancer or its treatment may include:

  • Spread of the cancer to other organs (metastasis).
  • In rare cases, injury during surgery to the nerve that controls movement of the face.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

  • You have pain when eating or chewing
  • You notice a lump in the mouth, under the jaw, or in the neck that does not go away in 2 to 3 weeks or is getting larger

References

National Cancer Institute. PDQ salivary gland cancer treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Last modified September 25, 2015. www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/salivary-gland-treatment-pdq. Accessed February 22, 2016

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN clinical practice guidelines in oncology (NCCN guidelines): Head and neck cancers. Version 1.2015. www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/head-and-neck.pdf. Accessed February 22, 2016.

Saade RE, Bell DM, Hanna EY. Benign neoplasms of the salivary glands. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 86.

Review Date:10/30/2015
Reviewed By:Sumana Jothi, MD, specialist in laryngology, Clinical Instructor UCSF Otolaryngology, NCHCS VA, SFVA, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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