Dry Mouth

By Tim Taylor


Everyone has experienced a dry mouth at some point in their life. Maybe it was before an important event, like a wedding, when you were nervous or stressed out. But having a dry mouth all of the time can be uncomfortable and can lead to serious health problems. The condition of having a dry mouth is known by the medical term xerostomia. Dry mouth can cause difficulties in tasting, chewing, swallowing and speaking. It can also increase your chance of developing dental decay and other infections in the mouth. Saliva is an essential body fluid for protection and preservation of the oral cavity and oral functions. It is produced by the three pairs of major salivary glands and hundreds of minor salivary glands. It protects the mouth, teeth and throat from serious infections. Dry mouth is not a normal part of aging. If you think you have an overly dry mouth, it’s a good idea to see a physician to learn about some of the things you can do to get relief.

Saliva unappreciated

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Saliva is the least appreciated of all bodily fluids. Saliva is mostly water, but it also contains over 60 substances, which protect, lubricate and cleanse the lining of the mouth. It aids with chewing, swallowing and talking and protects your teeth against decay. Since saliva plays such an important role in the oral cavity, decreased salivation can lead to many problems. If this condition persists for months or years, a patient may develop oral complications such as difficulty swallowing, severe and progressive tooth decay, oral infections or combinations of these. A dentist or dental hygienist usually detects the earliest signs of dry mouth by observing the amount of saliva pooled around the tongue during dental procedures. Little or no pooling of the saliva may indicate the patient is beginning to suffer from dry mouth. Other early signs to look for would be dental decay located at the necks of teeth next to the gums or on the chewing edges of teeth.

Different medications

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The condition dry mouth, known clinically as xerostomia, can be caused by any number of things. People get dry mouth when the glands in the mouth that make saliva are not working properly. Because of this, there might not be enough saliva to keep your mouth wet. There are several reasons why these salivary glands might not work right. There are more than 400 different medications that cause the salivary glands to make less saliva. For example, medicines for high blood pressure and depression often cause dry mouth. Some diseases can have an effect on the salivary glands. Sjögren’s syndrome, HIV or AIDS and diabetes can all cause dry mouth. The salivary glands can be damaged if they are exposed to radiation during radiation therapy for cancer. Chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer can make saliva thicker, causing the mouth to feel dry. And an injury to the head or neck can damage the nerves that tell salivary glands to make saliva.

Avoid caffeine

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Treating dry mouth depends on the cause of the condition. If your dry mouth is caused by a medication, talk to your physician about changing your medicine or adjusting the dosage. If your salivary glands are not working right but can still produce some saliva, your physician might give you a medicine that helps the glands work better. Your dentist may suggest that you use an artificial saliva to help keep your mouth wet. If you have dry mouth, be sure to brush after every meal and floss your teeth daily. If brushing is not possible, chewing a sugar-free gum or sucking on sugar-less hard candy after eating will stimulate saliva and decrease the risk of tooth decay. It will also help wash away any food debris. Avoid drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, and some sodas as caffeine can dry out the mouth. Instead, sip water or a sugarless drink during meals. This will make chewing and swallowing easier. It may also improve the taste of food.

Don’t use alcohol

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If you have a dry mouth, you need to be extra careful to keep your teeth healthy. Try to avoid sticky or sugary foods like potato chips or candy that can increase your risk of tooth decay. Be aware that spicy or salty foods may cause pain in a dry mouth. And don’t use alcohol or tobacco as they can dry out the mouth. Dry, cracked lips may be soothed by an oil-based balm or lipstick placed over previously moistened lips. The use of vitamin E-containing ointments may also be helpful. Try increasing the humidity in your home, particularly at night, by using a room humidifier. And most importantly, see your dentist for a check-up at least twice a year. Your dentist might also suggest you use a prescription-strength fluoride gel, which is like a toothpaste, to help prevent dental decay. Be sure to ask your dentist about how often you need to be checked for early tooth decay and about any specific instructions you need to follow regarding your oral hygiene.

Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.