Exocrine Glands

Team Biology at Examples.com
Created by: Team Biology at Examples.com, Last Updated: May 10, 2024

Exocrine Glands

Exocrine glands are key structures that release substances onto epithelial surfaces through ducts. Located throughout the body, these glands include salivary glands producing saliva, sweat glands regulating temperature, and mammary glands secreting milk. Other types include lacrimal glands for tears, sebaceous glands for skin oil, and mucous glands for internal moisture. Notably, the liver and pancreas also serve as exocrine glands by delivering digestive substances into the gastrointestinal tract, alongside their endocrine functions of hormone secretion.

What are Exocrine Glands?

Exocrine glands are specialized units consisting of cells that synthesize and secrete substances through ducts to external or internal body surfaces. These glands play crucial roles in maintaining various physiological processes by releasing a range of substances such as sweat, tears, saliva, milk, and digestive juices. Found throughout the body, exocrine glands are integral to the function of many organs and contribute to homeostasis and overall health.

Types of Exocrine Glands and Their Functions

Types of Exocrine Glands

Exocrine glands vary widely in function and location, demonstrating the complexity and diversity of glandular structures in the human body. Here are some prominent types:

  • Sweat Glands: Primarily involved in thermoregulation, sweat glands cover nearly the entire body. Eccrine sweat glands, a subtype, produce a clear, non-oily sweat that aids in cooling the body through evaporation.
  • Sebaceous Glands: Located in the skin, these glands open into hair follicles, secreting sebum, an oily substance that moisturizes and protects both skin and hair.
  • Salivary Glands: Essential for digestion and oral health, these glands produce saliva, which facilitates chewing, swallowing, and digestion, and also offers protective functions for mouth tissues.
  • Lacrimal Glands: Situated above the upper eyelids, these glands produce tears that lubricate and moisten the eyes, crucial for eye health and clear vision.
  • Mammary Glands: These glands produce milk, a nutrient-rich secretion that plays a critical role in the nourishment and immune protection of infants.
  • Ceruminous Glands: Found in the ear canal, these glands produce cerumen or ear wax, which protects the ears from foreign particles, bacteria, and infections.
  • Stomach Glands: Located within the stomach lining, these glands secrete digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid, aiding in the breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients.
  • Brunner Glands: Found in the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine, these glands secrete mucus that shields the intestinal lining from stomach acid and aids in nutrient absorption.

The liver and pancreas also function as exocrine glands, secreting bile and pancreatic juices into the gastrointestinal tract to assist in digestion.

Structure of Exocrine Glands

Exocrine glands feature two main parts: the glandular section and the duct section, which serve as the basis for classifying the gland.

  • The duct section can either branch out (known as compound) or remain unbranched (known as simple).
  • The glandular section may be tubular, acinar, or a combination of both (called tubuloacinar). If the glandular section branches, we call the gland a branched gland.

Method of Secretion

We can categorize exocrine glands into three types based on their secretion method: merocrine, apocrine, or holocrine.

  • Merocrine: Here, the gland’s cells actively release their substances through exocytosis into a duct. This secretion style appears in glands like pancreatic acinar cells, eccrine sweat glands, salivary glands, goblet cells, intestinal glands, and tear glands.
  • Apocrine: In this method, the top part of the cell’s cytoplasm, holding the secretion, pinches off and releases. This happens in sweat glands located in the armpits, pubic area, skin around the anus, lips, and nipples, as well as in mammary glands.
  • Holocrine: In holocrine secretion, the entire cell disintegrates to release its substance. Common examples include sebaceous glands in the skin and nose, along with the meibomian and zeis glands.

Products Secreted

Exocrine glands produce a variety of secretions:

  • Serous cells actively secrete proteins, often enzymes. Notable examples include gastric chief cells and Paneth cells.
  • Mucous cells release mucus, found in Brunner’s glands, esophageal glands, and pyloric glands.
  • Seromucous glands (mixed) simultaneously secrete both protein and mucus. For example, the parotid gland primarily secretes serous fluid (25% of saliva), the sublingual gland mainly produces mucous (5% of saliva), and the submandibular gland, which predominantly releases serous fluid, contributes to 70% of saliva secretion.
  • Sebaceous glands discharge sebum, a lipid product. These glands, also known as oil glands, include Fordyce spots and Meibomian glands.

Examples of Exocrine Glands

Salivary Glands

Salivary glands are responsible for the production and secretion of saliva, which aids in the initial digestion of food, lubricates the mouth, and helps protect the teeth from decay. The primary salivary glands include the parotid, submandibular, and sublingual glands.

Sweat Glands

Sweat glands are involved in thermoregulation and excretion and are classified into two types:

  • Eccrine glands: Eccrine glands, found all over the body, primarily help cool the body through sweat..
  • Apocrine glands: Apocrine glands, located in areas abundant in hair follicles such as the scalp, armpits, and groin, have secretions influenced by emotional stress.

Mammary Glands

Mammary glands, specialized organs in mammals, produce milk to nourish newborns.

Sebaceous Glands

Sebaceous glands are typically found in close association with hair follicles and secrete an oily substance called sebum. Sebum helps to lubricate and waterproof the skin and hair, preventing them from becoming dry and brittle.

Pancreas (Exocrine Part)

The pancreas has both exocrine and endocrine functions. The exocrine part produces digestive enzymes, which are secreted into the small intestine to aid in the digestion of food. These enzymes include lipase, amylase, and proteases.


The liver, while primarily known for its metabolic and detoxifying roles, also functions as an exocrine gland through the production of bile. Bile is essential for the digestion and absorption of dietary fats.

Gastric Glands

Located within the stomach lining, gastric glands secrete gastric juice, which contains hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes. This secretion is crucial for the digestion of proteins and the killing of bacteria ingested with food.

Exocrine Glands Secrete

“Exocrine glands secrete” refers to the function of a type of gland in the body. The term “secrete” means to produce and discharge a substance from cells or glands. So, when we say “exocrine glands secrete,” we mean that these glands produce and release specific substances (such as enzymes, mucus, sweat, saliva, etc.) through ducts to the outside of the body or into body cavities. These secretions play various roles in digestion, lubrication, cooling, protection, and other bodily functions, depending on the type of exocrine gland and its location in the body.

Function of Exocrine Glands

Functions of Exocrine Glands
  • Regulation of Body Temperature: Eccrine glands secrete and evaporate sweat from the skin to cool the body during high temperatures or physical exertion.
  • Lubrication and Protection: Several exocrine glands produce substances that lubricate and protect various body parts. Sebaceous glands secrete sebum, an oily substance that moisturizes the skin and hair and provides a barrier against external contaminants. Likewise, lacrimal glands produce tears that lubricate the eyes and contain antimicrobial components to protect against infection.
  • Digestion: Exocrine glands in the gastrointestinal tract play a vital role in digestion. Salivary glands secrete saliva, which moistens food and begins the breakdown of carbohydrates. The pancreas produces digestive enzymes crucial for digesting fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in the small intestine. Stomach glands secrete gastric juice containing hydrochloric acid and enzymes necessary for protein digestion and pathogen destruction.
  • Reproductive and Neonatal Nutrition: Mammary glands produce milk, a complete food source that provides essential nutrients and antibodies for newborn immune development.
  • Protection from External Harm: Ceruminous glands in the ear canal produce earwax, which traps dust, bacteria, and other foreign particles to prevent them from reaching the inner ear, thus protecting against infections and physical damage.

Specialized Roles

  • Brunner’s Glands: These glands, located in the initial part of the small intestine, secrete a mucus-rich alkaline fluid that protects the duodenum from stomach acid and aids in the absorption of digested nutrients.
  • Liver: The liver produces bile, which is stored in the gallbladder and released into the small intestine to aid in the digestion and absorption of fats.

Conditions and Disorders Affecting Exocrine Glands

Exocrine glands, crucial for various bodily functions, can be affected by a range of conditions and disorders that impair their ability to function properly. Here’s an overview of common issues associated with different types of exocrine glands:

1. Sweat Glands

  • Hyperhidrosis: This condition is characterized by excessive sweating, often occurring even when the body does not need cooling. It can affect specific areas or the entire body.
  • Anhidrosis: The inability to sweat normally, which can prevent the body from cooling down and pose serious health risks, especially in hot environments.

2. Sebaceous Glands

  • Acne: One of the most common skin conditions, acne arises from the overproduction of sebum combined with dead skin cells, leading to blocked pores and inflammation.
  • Seborrheic Dermatitis: A skin disorder causing scaly patches, red skin, and stubborn dandruff. It is thought to be related to an overproduction of sebum and irritation from a yeast called Malassezia.

3. Salivary Glands

  • Sjögren’s Syndrome: An autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the glands that produce moisture, including salivary glands, causing dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.
  • Salivary Gland Stones: These are calcified structures that form in the ducts of the salivary glands, blocking the flow of saliva and causing pain and swelling.

4. Lacrimal Glands

  • Dry Eye Syndrome: This occurs when the lacrimal glands don’t produce enough tears or produce poor-quality tears, leading to irritation, redness, and blurred vision.
  • Dacryoadenitis: Inflammation of the lacrimal glands, which can cause swelling and pain around the eyes. It may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

5. Mammary Glands

  • Mastitis: An inflammation of breast tissue that can involve infection. It is most commonly seen in breastfeeding women and can cause pain, swelling, and redness.
  • Breast Cancer: While not limited to the exocrine cells, breast cancer can arise from these cells, leading to significant health concerns. Early detection and treatment are crucial.

6. Pancreatic Glands

  • Pancreatitis: This is inflammation of the pancreas, which can be acute or chronic, and severely disrupts the digestive process by causing pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Cystic Fibrosis: This genetic disorder primarily affects the lungs but also damages the pancreas, preventing the release of digestive enzymes and leading to malnutrition and frequent infections.

7. Liver

  • Cirrhosis: Long-term damage to the liver cells can lead to scarring and impaired function, affecting bile production and overall health.
  • Hepatitis: Inflammation of the liver, often caused by viral infections, can impair its ability to function, including its exocrine roles in bile production.


What is the Difference Between Endocrine and Exocrine Glands?

Endocrine glands secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream, lacking ducts. Exocrine glands release substances via ducts to external or internal surfaces.

Which Best Describes the Exocrine Glands?

Exocrine glands secrete substances like sweat, saliva, and digestive enzymes through ducts to the body’s internal or external surfaces.

What Organs are Both Endocrine and Exocrine?

The pancreas and liver function as both endocrine and exocrine glands, secreting hormones and digestive juices.

Which is the Largest Exocrine Gland in Human Body?

The liver is the largest exocrine gland, producing bile important for digestion.

What are the 3 Types of Exocrine Glands?

The three main types of exocrine glands are merocrine, apocrine, and holocrine glands, differing in their methods of secretion.

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