Dry mouth is that uncomfortable feeling you get when you're not generating enough saliva to meet your needs. When your mouth fails to produce enough saliva, you will find yourself with more problems than just being thirsty.
By salivating, your mouth helps you taste and digest what you eat and drink. Food particles get flushed from your teeth and acid is washed away as well, which helps prevent tooth decay (cavities).
In this series, learn some of the many causes of dry mouth (also known as xerostomia), along with its symptoms, treatments, and remedies. This knowledge could be crucial to the ongoing health of your teeth and mouth.
Dry mouth is unpleasant and uncomfortable, but some of that discomfort takes surprising forms. Did you know that lack of salivation can make your tongue burn? It's a condition known as burning tongue syndrome, and it's just one of the surprising symptoms of dry mouth.
When your mouth is dry, you may notice your mouth feels sticky. It may become difficult to eat and swallow. Your throat may become dry as well, making choking more common.
Along with all the other discomforts, dry mouth may make your lips crack, it may make your tongue rough and dry, and it could cause sores to form on and in your mouth.
Adding to all the other possible problems, you may find it difficult to talk without the saliva necessary to keep your tongue lubricated.
Bad breath, sometimes called halitosis, can be another consequence of dry mouth. That's because food particles aren't being flushed away as frequently.
While wearing lipstick, you may notice your makeup getting stuck to your teeth because nothing is there to rinse it away. A hoarse or ticklish throat may be another consequence.
It was once believed that xerostomia was a consequence of aging. Doctors now know that many medications seniors frequently take may be the actual culprits. Some of the more than 400 possible medicines that cause dry mouth include
- blood pressure medicine,
- asthma drugs, and
- muscle relaxants.
Along with prescription drug treatments, a lot of over-the-counter drugs like decongestants may cause dry mouth, too. These include drugs for allergies and cold symptoms.
Medication isn't the only health-related cause. Sometimes other treatments for disease can bring on xerostomia. Radiation therapy for oral cancer can damage salivary glands in the process of attacking cancer cells. Another cancer treatment, chemotherapy, can thicken your saliva, causing your mouth to feel drier than usual.
Sometimes xerostomia can be traced back to nerve damage in the head or neck. When you have been injured in these places, the injury may impact the health of your nerves. Some of those nerves are responsible for carrying messages between your brain and salivary glands. If those nerves become damaged, your glands may not know when to produce saliva.
Sometimes disease causes xerostomia. A health condition known as Sjögren's (SHOW-grens) syndrome can cause white blood cells to attack the tear and salivary glands. This can dry out the eyes and mouth. It affects an estimated 400,000 to 3.1 million adults. Older women are particularly susceptible.
With Sjögren's syndrome, patients remain otherwise healthy, but may find their mouths are dry, and may also experience swollen glands around the face and neck, irritated, gritty-feeling eyes and dryness in nasal passages, throat, and vagina. Acid reflux may also accompany this inflammatory disease.
Dry mouth may not be the most destructive effect of smoking. But wouldn't it be nice to be free of it? Smoking alone doesn't cause xerostomia, but the condition can be aggravated with cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or other tobacco products—even smokeless ones.
Both medical and dental health professionals can be useful allies if you suffer from xerostomia. If the cause is not prescription medication, a doctor's exam may unearth undiagnosed medical conditions interfering with your oral wellness like diabetes or Sjögren's syndrome.
Taking care of your mouth starts at home, though. Follow the usual advice from dentists and brush and floss every day. At those times when you can't brush after a meal, make sure to rinse your mouth. Simply sipping water throughout the day can improve your dental health, and so can using an alcohol-free, antiseptic mouthwash every day.
A healthy mouth produces about three pints of saliva per day. That's because saliva is crucial to so much of what happens in the mouth, from neutralizing acidic foods that could harm teeth to adding moisture to food that helps protect against choking. Here are some tips for moistening your mouth:
- Start with your doctor, and ask if any medicine could be useful.
- Try sucking on a sugar-free candy or lozenge or chewing sugar-free gum, or lozenge. Lemon is a particularly effective flavor for stimulating salivation, as is any sour food.
- Ask your pharmacist for recommendations on over-the-counter treatments that may help relieve your symptoms.
It may seem obvious, but try to remember to sip more water frequently throughout the day to fight off the worst symptoms of xerostomia. Here are some more tips:
- During mealtime, drink water or milk to ease chewing and swallowing.
- Use a humidifier in the room you sleep in. Sometimes xerostomia symptoms will be better in the morning.
- Avoid drinks with caffeine or lots of sugar and acid.
- Make sure you are seeing your dentist regularly for your cleanings and dental exams.
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- American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
- American College of Rheumatology: "Sjögren’s Syndrome."
- American Dental Association.
- American Diabetes Association: "More on the Mouth."
- California Pacific Medical Center.
- College of Dentistry, University of Florida: "AGD: Factsheet Compiled for You by the Academy of General Dentistry."
- Harvard Health Publications: "What Causes Dry Mouth—and What Treats it."
- Journal of the American Dental Association.
- National Diabetes Education Program.
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
- National Institutes of Health's Senior Health.
- NIH: "Dry Mouth."
- Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation.
- University of Iowa Health Science Relations.