Mucocele and Ranula Clinical Presentation

Updated: Jun 22, 2023
  • Author: Catherine M Flaitz, DDS, MS; Chief Editor: Jeff Burgess, DDS, MSD  more...
  • Print


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, [16] lichenoid drug reaction, or chronic graft versus host disease involving the oral mucosa. [17]

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. [18]

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.


Physical Examination

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%. [19]

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. [20] 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.