What is dry mouth?
Dry mouth is a condition that results from a decreased volume of saliva in the mouth. Dry mouth is also called xerostomia. Xerostomia can make it difficult to speak, eat, and digest food and can lead to malnutrition. Extreme dry mouth and salivary gland dysfunction can produce significant anxiety, permanent mouth and throat disorders, and can impair a person’s quality of life.
What Causes Dry Mouth?
Medications: Many prescription and OTC medications cause dry mouth, including antihistamines, decongestants, hypertensive medications (for high blood pressure), antidiarrheals, muscle relaxants, urinary continence drugs, some Parkinson’s disease medications, as well as a number of antidepressants.
Age: Even though dry mouth is not a natural part of aging, older adults tend to take more medications than the rest of the population. Many of the medications taken by seniors cause dry mouth.
Cancer treatment: Radiotherapy (radiation therapy) to the head and neck can damage the salivary glands, resulting in less saliva being produced. Chemotherapy can alter the nature of the saliva, as well as how much of it the body produces.
Injury or surgery: This can result in nerve damage to the head and neck area can result in dry mouth.
Tobacco: Either chewing or smoking tobacco increases the risk of dry mouth symptoms.
Dehydration: This is caused by lack of sufficient fluids.
Exercising or playing in the heat: The salivary glands may become dry as bodily fluids are concentrated elsewhere in the body. Dry mouth symptoms are more likely if the exercise or playing continues for a long time.
Some health conditions, illnesses, and habits can cause dry mouth, such as:
- anxiety disorders
- Parkinson’s disease
- poorly controlled diabetes
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- sleeping with the mouth open
- stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, although these are more likely to cause a perception of dry mouth even when the salivary glands are functioning appropriately
What are dry mouth symptoms and signs?
People complaining of dry mouth may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:
- Dry feeling in mouth
- Dry feeling in throat, sore throat
- Frequent thirst
- Difficulty speaking, chewing, and swallowing (dysphagia)
- Increased need to drink liquids in order to swallow
- Diminished or altered sense of taste
- Chapped or cracked lips
- Dry eyes
- Pale gums
- Headaches, dizziness
- Bad breath
- Persistent cough
- Dry nasal passages
- Dry corners of mouth
- Mouth sores, ulcers
- Difficulty wearing dentures
- White tongue indicative of a fungal infection like yeast (candidiasis)
- Burning, sore, or tingling sensation in mouth, tongue, or throat
- Red, bleeding gums, gingivitis, and periodontitis
- Tooth decay — especially around the gum line or on the root surfaces
Fungal infections occurring in an individual with dry mouth may be associated with another underlying disease or disorder such as Addison’s disease, HIV, or diabetes. The most common sign of fungal infection of the mouth is burning tongue or white or dark plaque on the tongue or soft tissues of the mouth. Frequently, a dry mouth may manifest mostly at night during sleeping, especially in mouth-breathers.
How common is dry mouth?
Dry mouth affects about 10% of all people and tends to be more prevalent in women than men. Disorders of saliva production affect elderly people and those who are taking prescription and nonprescription medications most frequently.
What are the benefits of saliva?
Saliva is an essential part of a healthy mouth and is often taken for granted. The lubricating properties of saliva provide comfort and help protect the oral tissues against ulcers, sores, and other frictional movements that accompany normal eating and speaking. Saliva neutralizes acids and helps defend against tooth decay, and bacterial, viral, or fungal threats. Saliva helps digest food and helps teeth in remineralization. Saliva is also a very essential contributor to a person’s ability to taste, as it acts as a solvent for the taste stimuli. When saliva volume is insufficient, all of these functions are impaired.
There are many ways to keep the mouth lubricated and prevent the symptoms of dry mouth.
- sipping non-carbonated, sugar-free fluids
- chewing gum that contains xylitol, available for purchase online.
- using a carboxymethyl cellulose saliva substitute as a mouthwash may help
- avoiding mouthwashes that contain alcohol. A range of alcohol-free mouthwash is available for purchase online.
- not wear dentures during sleep.
- eating foods such as carrots or celery
- breathing through the nose, as this does not dry the mouth to the same extent as breathing through the mouth does.
- using a humidifier to add moisture to a bedroom, which may help reduce dry mouth symptoms that develop during sleep. Humidifiers are available for purchase online.
Individuals should avoid:
- chewing or smoking tobacco
- sugary foods or drinks
- acidic foods or drinks
- dry foods
- spicy foods
- excessively hot or cold drinks
Alcohol consumption should be kept to a minimum or avoided altogether, and caffeine should be only be consumed in moderation.
Is it possible to prevent dry mouth?
There is really no prevention of dry mouth, only the side effects of dry mouth. It is vital to detect, diagnose, and treat xerostomia as early as possible to avoid the devastating consequences of chronic dry mouth on dental and overall health.
What is the prognosis of dry mouth?
The prognosis (outlook) depends on the underlying cause of the dry mouth. Management should be focused on eliminating the cause when possible, such as with dehydration, anemia, and stress. If the cause can’t be eliminated, then it is necessary to keep the affected person as comfortable and free from caries and Candida yeast infection as possible. By using simple techniques to help stimulate saliva, substitute for saliva, and protect the teeth and surrounding tissues, one can expect a very good prognosis for avoiding the side effects of dry mouth.
Your doctor or dentist will review your medical history and ask about any medications you take. He or she may also suggest blood tests or a test that measures how much saliva you produce.
Depending on the cause of your dry mouth, your health care provider can recommend appropriate treatment. For example, if medication is causing dry mouth, the doctor or dentist may advise changing medications or adjusting the dosages, or may prescribe a saliva substitute.
There are also self-care steps you can take to help ease dry mouth, such as drinking plenty of water, chewing sugarless gum, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol. Good oral care at home and regular dental check-ups will help keep your mouth healthy.
You can relieve dry mouth symptoms by:
- Sipping water or sugarless drinks often.
- Sipping water or a sugarless drink during meals. This will make chewing and swallowing easier. It may also improve the taste of food.
- Avoiding drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, and some sodas. Caffeine can dry out the mouth.
- Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candy to stimulate saliva flow; citrus, cinnamon or mint-flavored candies are good choices. Some sugarless chewing gums and candies contain xylitol and may help prevent cavities.
- Avoiding spicy or salty foods, which may cause pain in a dry mouth.
- Avoiding tobacco or alcohol. They dry out the mouth. If you are a current smoker, consider quitting.
- Using a humidifier at night.
- MedlinePlus: Dry Mouth
The NIH National Library of Medicine’s collection of links to government, professional and non-profit/voluntary organizations with information on dry mouth.
- Dry Mouth? Don’t Delay Treatment
The U.S Food and Drug Administration provides information on dry mouth and offers advice for consumers on how to relieve its symptoms.
- NIDCR Sjögren’s Syndrome Clinic
NIDCR Sjogren’s Syndrome Clinic develops new therapies based on better understanding of the condition and conducts clinical studies to test these new treatments.
- Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation
The Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation educates patients and their families about Sjögren’s, increases public and professional awareness of the condition, and encourages research into new treatments and a cure.
- Quit Smoking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If dry mouth happens all or most of the time, however, it can be uncomfortable – and may have serious consequences for your oral health. Drying irritates the soft tissues in the mouth, which can make them inflamed and more susceptible to infection. Without the cleansing effects of saliva, tooth decay and other oral health issues become much more common. It is important that you take good care of your teeth and gums. Brush twice a day, and floss or use an interdental cleaner once a day to remove dental plaque and food debris from between the teeth where your toothbrush cannot reach.
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