What Is Salivary Gland Tumor?

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

Salivary gland tumors can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Although most salivary gland tumors are benign, some are malignant. It’s also possible for benign tumors to become malignant over time if left untreated.

Malignant salivary gland tumors are relatively rare, making up only 6 percent of head and neck cancers. The most common type of salivary gland tumor (~80% of all salivary gland tumors) is a slow-growing benign tumor in the parotid gland. Minor salivary gland tumors are rare.

Alternative Names:

Tumor - salivary duct

Causes of Salivary Gland Tumors

The cause of most salivary gland tumors is currently unknown, but genetic research is being conducted to uncover it. In some cases, skin cancer can spread to the parotid gland. Smoking is also known to cause one type of benign tumor, Warthin’s.

Symptoms of Salivary Gland Tumors

Symptoms may include:

  • 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). Swelling can progress at varying rates depending on the underlying cause. Slow swelling usually indicates a benign tumor, while rapid swelling is more likely to indicate a malignant tumor or infection.
  • Difficulty moving one side of the face, known as facial nerve palsy. This can signal a malignant and advanced tumor, primarily in the parotid gland.

Exams and Tests for Salivary Gland Tumors

An examination by a health care provider or dentist may reveal a larger than normal salivary gland, usually one of the parotid glands, indicating you may have a tumor.

Many patients who are looking for a diagnosis for their salivary gland swelling often fear it is cancer. Penn ENT’s Salivary Gland Center providers are experts in distinguishing between tumors and inflammatory salivary gland disease.

Tests may include:

  • X-rays of the salivary gland (called a sialogram) to look for a tumor
  • Ultrasound, CT scan or MRI to confirm that there is a growth, and to see if it has spread to lymph nodes in the neck
  • Salivary gland biopsy or fine needle aspiration to determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant
  • Sialendoscopy, a minimally invasive outpatient procedure, used to identify small tumors that may otherwise go unnoticed and progress to later-stage cancer

Treatment of Salivary Gland Tumors

If you have a benign tumor, your doctor may recommend surgical removal to prevent it from becoming malignant over time. A benign tumor in the parotid gland can be removed using a surgical procedure called a partial superficial parotidectomy.

For cancerous salivary gland tumors, treatment is managed by a team of nationally recognized experts at the Abramson Cancer Center. Surgery is the main form of treatment for removing malignant tumors. Small- or medium-sized malignant tumors may be removed using partial superficial parotidectomy, but most require a more extensive surgery based on their location. Surgery can be performed in conjunction with the use of radiation therapy or chemotherapy if the disease has spread beyond the salivary glands.

Sialendoscopy can also be used to help rebuild or protect ducts of both parotid and submandibular glands near the site of a tumor removal. Penn ENT is a national leader in this minimally invasive procedure. Not only do our surgeons have extensive experience performing this procedure, but they have also trained many other surgeons nationally and internationally. Penn is also among the preeminent researchers in the field for optimizing the use of this treatment.

Learn more about the treatment Penn ENT's Salivary Gland Center provides for salivary gland disorders

Outlook (Prognosis) for Salivary Gland Tumors

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.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have any of the following:

  • Pain or swelling in the mouth, especially when eating or chewing
  • 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

Penn Programs & Services for Salivary Gland Tumor

Salivary Gland Center

Penn Ear, Nose and Throat offers one of the region’s only dedicated salivary gland centers. Our specialists are nationally-recognized experts in diagnosing and treating salivary gland disorders.

General Otolaryngology

Penn Otolaryngology provides evaluation, diagnosis and treatment for the full spectrum of ear, nose and throat (ENT) disorders.

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