The salivary glands

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

Diagram of the salivary glands and ducts
Diagram of the salivary glands and ducts

Major salivary glands

The major salivary glands are the larger salivary glands that produce most of the saliva. There are 3 types of major salivary glands.

The parotid glands are the largest salivary glands. There are 2 parotid glands, one in front of each ear on either side of the face. The parotid gland is divided into 2 lobes, one on each side of the facial nerve. The superficial lobe is closest to the front of the neck. The deep lobe is deeper in the neck tissues.

The submandibular glands are smaller than the parotid glands. There are 2 submandibular glands. Each gland is behind the lower jaw, just under the chin and tongue, on either side of the face.

The sublingual glands are the smallest of the major salivary glands. There are 2 sublingual glands. Each gland is deep in the floor of the mouth, on either side of the tongue. Saliva from the sublingual glands enters the mouth through many tiny sublingual ducts.

Minor salivary glands

There are 750 to 1000 minor salivary glands. They are very small. Most of them are too small to be seen with the naked eye.

About half of all minor salivary glands are on the hard palate in the roof of the mouth. Minor salivary glands are also found in the lips, cheeks, nose, sinuses around the nose (called paranasal sinuses), nasopharynx, larynx and trachea.


Salivary glands play an important role in digestion because they make saliva. Saliva helps moisten food so we can swallow it more easily. It also has an enzyme called amylase that makes it easier for the stomach to break down starches in food.

Saliva also has an important role in our oral health. It prevents infections in the mouth and throat. It also helps to maintain healthy teeth and prevent bad breath. Saliva also moistens the oral cavity, which helps with swallowing and speaking.

Expert review and references

  • Martini FH, Timmons MJ, Tallitsch RB. Human Anatomy. 7th ed. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings; 2012.
  • Macmillan Cancer Support. Salivary gland cancer. 2017.
  • Skalova A, Michal M, Simpson RHW. Newly described salivary gland tumors. Modern Pathology. 2017: 30: S27–S43.

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