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Mucocele and Ranula Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Catherine M Flaitz, DDS, MS; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
Updated: May 19, 2015


Mucoceles are painless, asymptomatic swellings that have a relatively rapid onset and fluctuate in size. They may rapidly enlarge and then appear to involute because of the rupture of the contents into the oral cavity or resorption of the extravasated mucus. The patient may relate a history of recent or remote trauma to the mouth or face, or the patient may have a habit of biting the lip. However, in many cases no insult can be identified. When lesions occur on the anterior ventral surface of the tongue, tongue thrusting may be the aggravating habit, in addition to trauma. The duration of the lesion is usually 3-6 weeks; however, it may vary from a few days to several years in exceptional instances.

Patients with superficial mucoceles report small fluid-filled vesicles on the soft palate, the retromolar pad, the posterior buccal mucosa, and, occasionally, the lower labial mucosa. These vesicles spontaneously rupture and leave an ulcerated mucosal surface that heals within a few days. Several lesions may be present, and they range from being nontender to painful. Some individuals note a pattern of development during mealtime. Often, an individual may rupture or unroof the vesicles by creating a suction pressure. Typically, affected individuals report a chronic and recurrent history. Frequently, the patient has a history of lichen planus,[10] lichenoid drug reaction, or chronic graft versus host disease involving the oral mucosa.[11]

Individuals with an oral ranula may complain of swelling of the floor of the mouth that is usually painless. The mass may interfere with speech, mastication, respiration, and swallowing because of the upward and medial displacement of the tongue. When oral ranulas are large, the tongue may place pressure on the lesion, which may interfere with submandibular salivary flow. As a result, obstructive salivary gland signs and symptoms may develop, such as pain or discomfort when eating, a feeling of fullness at that site, and increased swelling of the submandibular gland.

In individuals with a cervical ranula, an enlarging asymptomatic neck mass is reported. Although trauma to the floor of the mouth or neck region is thought to be associated with the development of a ranula, a specific incidence is usually not identified. In some cases, the individual may have a prior history of a previously removed sialolith, other oral surgical procedures at the floor of the mouth, or transposition of the submandibular ducts for the management of severe drooling. A ranula from improper placement of mandibular implants has been reported.[12]

Congenital anomalies, such as ductal atresia or failure of canalization of the excretory ducts, may contribute to the development of ranulas in infants. In large cervical ranulas, dysphagia and respiratory distress may be the chief complaints. The patient may have a history of a preceding oral swelling (45%) or a concurrent oral mass at presentation (34%). One fifth of patients with cervical ranula have only a cervical swelling, lacking an oral ranula or a history of an oral ranula.

The mucus retention cyst appears as a superficial asymptomatic swelling that is usually not associated with a history of trauma. These cysts tend to have variable growth rates, and they do not fluctuate in size. When the mucus retention cyst involves the submandibular gland, Wharton duct, or Stensen duct, obstructive disease may occur and a pattern of gustatory swelling and pain may be reported.



The clinical features associated with mucoceles include a nontender, mobile, dome-shaped enlargement with intact epithelium that lies over it. Superficial lesions take on a bluish to translucent hue, whereas deep lesions have normal mucosal coloration. Bleeding into the swelling may impart a bright red and vascular appearance. The mucosa lining is usually intact; however, repeated sucking on the lesion may result in a white, rough, keratotic surface. Occasionally, a punctate sinus tract is observed from which mucoid material is expressed. Palpation reveals a fluctuant mass that does not blanch on compression. An inflammatory response is usually not detected at clinical examination unless it has been irritated recently.

Most are less than 1 cm in diameter but range from 0.1-4 cm in size. Although the mucocele can occur anywhere in the oral cavity where minor salivary glands are present, a large consecutive case review from an oral pathology laboratory service reported the following sites in descending order: lower labial mucosa, 81.9%; floor of mouth, 5.8%; ventral tongue, 5%; buccal mucosa, 4.8%; palate, 1.3%; and retromolar area, 0.5%.[13]

Classic example of a mucocele in a child. The fluc Classic example of a mucocele in a child. The fluctuant, translucent-blue nodule on the lower labial mucosa has been present for 6 weeks. Trauma from sucking on the lower lip was suspected to be the cause.

The Blandin and Nuhn mucocele occurs exclusively on the anterior ventral surface of the tongue at the midline. Although the lesions may have clinical features similar to those of the mucocele, which is found elsewhere, they tend to be more polypoid with a pedunculated base. Because of repeated trauma against the lower teeth, the surface may be red and granular or white and keratotic.

Mucocele on the midline ventral surface of the ton Mucocele on the midline ventral surface of the tongue involving the glands of Blandin and Nuhn.

Superficial mucoceles appear as single or multiple tense vesicles with intact delicate mucosa. They are transparent, mucous filled, and dome shaped. The lesions tend to persist for several days, rupture spontaneously, and heal a few days after they rupture. Usually, only mild discomfort occurs, but some cases are painful. Concurrent lichenoid disorders have been reported.[14] Superficial mucoceles are typically 1-4 mm in diameter.

Example of 2 superficial mucoceles of the soft pal Example of 2 superficial mucoceles of the soft palate in a 50-year-old woman. The red lesion represents a recently ruptured mucocele, and the translucent papular lesion represents an intact mucocele.

The oral ranula is a relatively large unilateral blue to translucent mass in the floor of the mouth that remotely resembles the belly of a frog (Rana species). The lesion may cross the midline when especially large, making the offending salivary gland difficult to localize. Large oral ranulas superiorly and medially displace the tongue. The consistency of the lesion is that of mucus, and the lesion does not blanch on compression. If the mass is located in the deeper aspect of the floor of the mouth, it loses its bluish translucent color. Ranulas arise primarily from the sublingual gland and, infrequently, from the minor salivary glands and only rarely from the submandibular gland.

Unilateral oral ranula in a young adult manifestin Unilateral oral ranula in a young adult manifesting as a purple swelling.

The cervical ranula appears as an asymptomatic, continuously enlarging mass that may fluctuate in size. The overlying skin is usually intact. The mass is fluctuant, freely movable, and nontender. The mass is not associated with the thyroid gland or lymph node chains. In some instances, detecting salivary gland herniation of a portion of the sublingual gland through the mylohyoid muscle into the neck may be possible. The mass may not be well defined but follows the fascial planes of the neck and may extend into the mediastinum. Similar to the oral ranula, the mass tends to cause a lateral swelling; however, it may cross the midline.

The mucus retention cyst has a presentation similar to that of a mucocele and a ranula, except that it does not fluctuate in size. The fluid-filled lesions tend to slowly enlarge with well-defined margins that are freely movable. The dome-shaped nodule has a smooth intact surface that imparts a pink, yellow, blue, or red color. The oral floor is the primary site, especially in the area of the orifices of the Wharton's duct and the caruncles, followed by the buccal mucosa. The lesions are usually 5-15 mm in diameter, but they may be much larger when they involve the sublingual or submandibular gland.



The most frequently injured glands are the minor salivary glands of the lower lip. The mechanism of injury is mechanical, with the tissue of the lower lip becoming caught between the maxillary anterior teeth and the mandibular anterior teeth during mastication or with the habit of biting one's lip. This trauma results in a crush-type injury and severance of the excretory duct of the minor salivary gland. In the palate, low-grade chronic irritation (eg, from heat and noxious tobacco products) may cause these lesions to develop.

Mucoceles occur when injury to the minor salivary glands occurs usually secondary to trauma; biting one's lip; chronic inflammation with periductal scarring; excretory duct fibrosis; prior surgery; trauma from oral intubation; or rarely, minor salivary gland sialolithiasis. Most mucoceles occur because of severance of the excretory duct and extravasation of mucus into the adjacent tissue.

Birth trauma that affects the oral cavity is believed to cause some congenital mucoceles in some newborns. Potential causes include the baby sucking his or her fingers in utero or the baby passing through the birth canal. Other causes include the use of forceps during delivery or suctioning of the baby's mouth after birth.

Most ranulas are the result of escaped mucus from an injured excretory duct, while ductal obstruction of primarily the sublingual gland and rarely the submandibular gland is a less common cause. This obstruction is often due to a sialolith or mucus plug; however, chronic inflammation or infection with periductal scarring, trauma, ductal stenosis, ductal hypoplasia or agenesis, and neoplasia are other causes of ranula formation.

Anatomic variation of ductal system of the sublingual gland may increase the risk for the development of a ranula. In particular, this risk appears to be increased when the Bartholin duct is connected to and empties into the Wharton duct.[15]

Isolated case reports have identified Sjögren syndrome and sarcoidosis as contributing to the development of these reactive lesions. In addition, HIV infection may increase the risk of developing a ranula in children and adults.[16, 17]

Cervical ranulas are usually associated with a discontinuity of the mylohyoid muscle. The mylohyoid muscle is regarded as the diaphragm of the floor of the mouth; however, it is not a strict anatomical barrier from entry into the neck. A dehiscence or hiatus in the mylohyoid muscle has been noted in 36-45% of individuals in cadaver studies. This defect is observed along the lateral aspect of the anterior two thirds of the muscle. Projections of sublingual glandular tissue or ectopic glandular tissue may also extend into the neck; these projections facilitate cervical ranula formation. Approximately 45% of plunging ranulas occur after surgery to remove oral ranulas.

Example of a cervical ranula with no oral involvem Example of a cervical ranula with no oral involvement in an adult. The swelling developed after a car accident in which the individual had trauma to the face and neck.

An obstruction of the excretory duct, with pooling and dilatation of the affected duct, causes the mucus retention cyst. A mucus plug appears to be the cause in most instances, although a sialolith accounts for some of these cysts.

With superficial mucoceles, mucosal inflammation and the salivary composition of the minor glands, rather than trauma, induces these lesions.

Lichen planus, lichenoid drug reaction, and chronic graft versus host disease can trigger the formation of superficial mucoceles.

Tartar-control toothpaste may be the inciting factor in a few cases of superficial mucoceles.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Catherine M Flaitz, DDS, MS Distinguished Teaching Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology and Pediatric Dentistry, Department of Diagnostic and Biomedical Sciences, University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston School of Dentistry

Catherine M Flaitz, DDS, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Oral Medicine, International Association of Oral Pathologists, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, American Dental Association, International Association for Dental Research

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry Board of Trustees; Commissioner of Dental Accreditation; Chief of Dentistry Nationwide Children's Hospital<br/>Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry Speakers Bureau<br/>Received research grant from: Trimira LLC; GC America; C3-Jian; others<br/>Travel Grant from GC America; American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry for Continuing Education Presenter for: Multiple speaking engagements for dental meetings.


M John Hicks, DDS, MD, PhD, MS Professor with Tenure, Department of Pathology and Immunology, Baylor College of Medicine; Medical Director of Ultrastructural Pathology, Department of Pathology, Texas Children's Hospital; Professor of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine; Adjunct Professor, Department of Pediatric Dentistry, School of Dentistry, University of Texs Health Science Center at Houston

M John Hicks, DDS, MD, PhD, MS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology, American Society for Clinical Pathology, College of American Pathologists, International Academy of Pathology, International Association of Oral Pathologists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

David F Butler, MD Section Chief of Dermatology, Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System; Professor of Dermatology, Texas A&M University College of Medicine; Founding Chair, Department of Dermatology, Scott and White Clinic

David F Butler, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association, Alpha Omega Alpha, Association of Military Dermatologists, American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, American Society for MOHS Surgery, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Drore Eisen, MD, DDS Consulting Staff, Department of Dermatology, Dermatology Research Associates of Cincinnati

Drore Eisen, MD, DDS is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Academy of Oral Medicine, American Dental Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

William D James, MD Paul R Gross Professor of Dermatology, Vice-Chairman, Residency Program Director, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

William D James, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Timothy McCalmont, MD Director, UCSF Dermatopathology Service, Professor of Clinical Pathology and Dermatology, Departments of Pathology and Dermatology, University of California at San Francisco; Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Cutaneous Pathology

Timothy McCalmont, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Medical Association, American Society of Dermatopathology, California Medical Association, College of American Pathologists, United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Apsara for independent contractor.

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Classic example of a mucocele in a child. The fluctuant, translucent-blue nodule on the lower labial mucosa has been present for 6 weeks. Trauma from sucking on the lower lip was suspected to be the cause.
Fluctuant submucosal nodule of the lower lip consistent with a mucocele.
Surgical excision of the mucocele in Media File 2.
Mucocele on the midline ventral surface of the tongue involving the glands of Blandin and Nuhn.
Example of 2 superficial mucoceles of the soft palate in a 50-year-old woman. The red lesion represents a recently ruptured mucocele, and the translucent papular lesion represents an intact mucocele.
Unilateral oral ranula in a young adult manifesting as a purple swelling.
Ranula on the floor of the mouth with focal ulceration.
Example of a cervical ranula with no oral involvement in an adult. The swelling developed after a car accident in which the individual had trauma to the face and neck.
Low-power photomicrograph of a mucocele with attenuation of the mucosal surface and pooling of mucus (hematoxylin-eosin, original magnification X40).
High-power photomicrograph of a mucocele with pooling of mucus and numerous foamy histiocytes (hematoxylin-eosin, original magnification X400).
Intermediate-power photomicrograph of an affected minor salivary gland lobule with atrophy of the acinar structures, ductal ectasia, and fibrosis (hematoxylin-eosin, original magnification X100).
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