Overview

Salivary gland tumors are rare types of tumors that begin in the salivary glands.

Salivary gland tumors can begin in any of the salivary glands in your mouth, neck or throat. Salivary glands make saliva, which aids in digestion, keeps your mouth moist and supports healthy teeth.

You have three pairs of major salivary glands under and behind your jaw — parotid, sublingual and submandibular. Many other tiny salivary glands are in your lips, inside your cheeks, and throughout your mouth and throat.

Salivary gland tumors most commonly occur in the parotid gland, accounting for nearly 85 percent of all salivary gland tumors. Approximately 25 percent of parotid tumors are cancerous (malignant).

Treatment for salivary gland tumors often involves surgery. Treatments for salivary gland tumors may also include radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of a salivary gland tumor may include:

  • A lump or swelling on or near your jaw or in your neck or mouth
  • Numbness in part of your face
  • Muscle weakness on one side of your face
  • Persistent pain in the area of a salivary gland
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Trouble opening your mouth widely

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you.

Having a lump or an area of swelling near your salivary gland is the most common sign of a salivary gland tumor, but it doesn't mean you have cancer. Most salivary gland tumors are noncancerous (benign). Many other noncancerous conditions may lead to a swollen salivary gland, including an infection or a stone in a salivary gland duct.

Causes

Salivary gland tumors are rare, accounting for less than 10 percent of all head and neck tumors. It's not clear what causes salivary gland tumors.

Doctors know salivary gland cancer occurs when some cells in a salivary gland develop mutations in their DNA. The mutations allow the cells to grow and divide rapidly. The mutated cells continue living when other cells would die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that can invade nearby tissue. Cancerous cells can break off and spread (metastasize) to distant areas of the body.

Types of salivary gland tumors

Many different types of salivary gland tumors exist. Doctors classify salivary gland tumors based on the type of cells involved in the tumors. Knowing the type of salivary gland tumor you have helps your doctor determine which treatment options are best for you.

The most common benign salivary gland tumor is a pleomorphic adenoma. This is typically a slow-growing tumor that occurs most often in the parotid gland. Other benign salivary gland tumors include:

  • Basal cell adenoma
  • Oncocytoma
  • Warthin tumor

Types of malignant salivary gland tumors include:

  • Acinic cell carcinoma
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma
  • Clear cell carcinoma
  • Malignant mixed tumor
  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
  • Oncocytic carcinoma
  • Polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma
  • Salivary duct carcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of salivary gland tumors include:

  • Older age. Though salivary gland tumors can occur at any age, they most commonly occur in older adults.
  • Radiation exposure. Radiation, such as radiation used to treat head and neck cancers, increases the risk of salivary gland tumors.
  • Workplace exposure to certain substances. People who work with certain substances may have an increased risk of salivary gland tumors. Jobs associated with salivary gland tumors include those involved in rubber manufacturing, asbestos mining and plumbing.