Warthin tumor

Warthin tumors, also known as lymphomatous papillary cystadenomas, are benign, sharply demarcated tumors of the salivary gland. They are of lymphoid origin and most commonly arise from parotid gland tail. They may be bilateral or multifocal in up to 20% of cases and are the most common neoplastic cause of multiple solid parotid masses. 

Warthin tumors are the 2nd most common benign parotid tumor (after pleomorphic adenoma) and represent up to 10% of all parotid tumors. They are the commonest bilateral or multifocal benign parotid tumor. They typically occur in the elderly (6th decade), and twice as common in men (2.2:1) 11. Patients typically present with painless parotid swelling.

They are often multicentric (20%) and are usually small (1-4 cm). They have a typically heterogeneous appearance on all modalities, often with cystic components (30%).

Tends to favor the parotid tail region at the level of mandibular angle. 
In <10% cases, they are found elsewhere, including the submandibular glands, cervical lymph nodes and ectopic nests of salivary tissue, e.g. larynx, maxillary antrum, oral cavity (e.g. lower lip, buccal mucosa) 11,12.

  • smoking
  • irradiation

Has a greater tendency to undergo cystic change (~30%) than any other salivary gland tumor 4,5.

Most tumors tend to be ovoid, with well-defined margins and multiple irregular, small, sponge-like anechoic areas 10. Tumors that are large (e.g. >5 cm) tend to have a higher proportion of cystic content than smaller lesions had and in some cases can be composed almost entirely of cystic material. They are often hypervascular.

  • classic appearance is a well-defined heterogeneous solid cystic lesion within the superficial lobe of parotid/parotid tail
  • well defined
  • no calcification
  • cystic changes appear as intralesional lower attenuation
  • moderate enhancement
  • presence of mural nodule is strongly suggestive of Warthin tumor
  • can be often seen bilaterally

Well defined and can be bilateral. 

  • T1: low to intermediate signal with cyst containing cholesterol components containing focal high signal 2
  • T2: heterogeneous and variable signal intensity
  • T1 C+ (Gd): usually no contrast enhancement 3

Often shows uptake with Tc99-pertechnetate, thallium and FDG-PET 7.

They are benign with an extremely low incidence of malignant transformation (~1%). Some advocate surgical excision while others favor conservative management with follow-up imaging. The commonest surgery is a superficial parotidectomy and recurrence rate is low, less than 5% in one of the largest published series 11,12.

Possible imaging differential considerations include:

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Article information

rID: 2280
System: Head & Neck
Tag: parotid
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Papillary cystadenoma lymphomatosum
  • Warthin's tumour
  • Warthin tumor
  • Warthin's tumor
  • Warthin tumours
  • Warthin tumors
  • Warthin's tumors
  • Warthin's tumours
  • lymphomatous papillary cystadenomas
  • lymphomatous papillary cystadenoma

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Cases and figures

  • Fig 1: relative frequency of salivary gland tumors
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  • Case 1: left parotid gland lesion
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  • Case 2: on right
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  • Case 3: on left
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  • Case 4: with atypical calcification
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  • Case 5: bilateral
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  • Case 6: bilateral
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  • Case 7
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