Dry mouth (or xerostomia) occurs when your salivary glands fail to produce adequate saliva. Besides causing a dry, parched feeling in and around your mouth, this condition also causes cracked lips, dry tongue, and sores to form at the corners of your mouth. Left untreated it can also lead to various oral health problems, including halitosis (bad breath), cavities, gingivitis (gum disease), and, in some cases, even speech changes and difficulties swallowing.
Dry mouth isn’t usually a serious medical condition on its own but a symptom of an underlying health problem. Below, we’ll discuss some of the most common symptoms, causes, and treatments.
Symptoms of Dry Mouth
If you’re not producing enough saliva, you may notice some or all of these symptoms:
- rough, grooved tongue
- extreme thirst
- bad breath
- frequent mouth ulcers
- susceptibility to oral thrush infections
- extreme tooth decay
- dry or sore throat and hoarseness
- difficulty chewing, speaking, and swallowing
- prickly, burning sensation in the mouth
- tongue sticking against the roof of the mouth
- a changed sense of taste
- ill-fitted dentures (because saliva helps create the suction between the gum tissues and the acrylic base of the denture)
Added Symptoms in the Rest of the Body
Depending on the underlying cause, dry mouth may show symptoms outside the mouth, including:
- burning, itchy eyes
- dry throat and nose
- reduced sense of smell
- frequent coughing
- acute constipation
- joint pain or stiffness
- inexplicable weight loss
- feeling unwell generally
- frequent vaginal thrush infections
What Causes Dry Mouth?
Some of the most common causes of dry mouth include:
- Certain Medications
Many prescription/non-prescription drugs, including ones used to treat allergies, colds (antihistamines, decongestants), pain, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, obesity, acne, epilepsy, hypertension (diuretics), diarrhea, nausea, and psychotic disorders, can cause dry mouth. Dry mouth can also be a side effect of taking muscle relaxants and sedatives.
- Certain Diseases
Dry mouth can be the result of Sjögren’s syndrome; an autoimmune disorder wherein your white blood cells attack your tear and salivary glands. People with diabetes, HIV/AIDS, anemia, cystic fibrosis, hypertension, stroke, mumps, and Parkinson’s disease can also have dry mouths.
- Cancer Treatments
Any damage to the salivary glands can cause them to produce less saliva. For example, radiotherapy (radiation therapy) to the neck and head can damage the salivary glands, resulting in less production of saliva. Chemotherapy, too, can cause saliva to thicken, hence causing dry mouth.
- Nerve Damage
Nerve damage from a neck or head injury can cause dry mouth. If the nerves that carry messages between the brain and salivary glands get damaged, they may not be able to stimulate the salivary glands to make enough saliva.
- Tobacco Consumption
There are several reasons to quit smoking; dry mouth is one of them. Aside from smoking cigarettes or cigars, pipes or other tobacco products, even chewing tobacco can cause symptoms of dry mouth.
Many people experience dry mouth with age. Common contributing factors include certain medications (for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s), our inability to process certain medications, poor nutrition, and long-term health problems (including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes).
- Other Causes
Constantly breathing through the mouth (in the case of a persistently stuffy nose or blocked sinus), or hormonal changes from pregnancy or menopause can cause a dry, sticky mouth.
Possible Treatments for Dry Mouth
Treating the Root Cause
Your doctor or dentist is the best person to determine the reason behind your dry mouth and how to relieve your symptoms. For instance, if a certain medication is the cause of your dry mouth, they will adjust the dose or suggest an alternative.
Tips to Boost Saliva Production
Treatment for your dry mouth can be divided into four categories: saliva preservation, saliva substitution, saliva stimulation, and prevention of oral infection.
1. Saliva Preservation – If you have low saliva production, you must try to keep your oral tissues as moist as possible and avoid things that can dry your mouth. For example, breathe through your nose as much as possible and limit mouth inhalation. Also, avoid consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. Use a humidifier, especially in winter, to help moisten the air. Don’t use over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants, as these can aggravate your symptoms.
2. Saliva Substitution – Luckily, there are many home remedies to replenish the lack of saliva in your mouth. These include moistening all dry foods with broth, milk, water, or melted butter. This will make it easier for you to chew and swallow. Ensure adequate hydration by drinking at least eight to twelve glasses of water daily, unless your doctor advises against it. Always keep a water bottle handy to take a sip every now and then. A mouthwash can also help, but make sure that it doesn’t contain alcohol, as this can cause further mouth dryness. Moisturizing your lips with lip balm can also help.
3. Saliva Stimulation – Chewing sugar-free gum or hard candies can help stimulate the salivary glands. Make sure that they’re 100% sugar-free to avoid cavities, calories, and carbohydrates. There are many over-the-counter medicines like pilocarpine (Salagen) or cevimeline (Evoxac) that stimulate saliva production, but these may not be suitable for everybody. Consult your doctor before taking any medication. Some research suggests that acupuncture can also help with dry mouth.
4. Prevention of Oral Infections – Cavities, gingivitis, periodontal disease, and fungal infections are some common oral complications of dry mouth. Since a dry oral environment makes plaque control difficult, proper oral care and hygiene become a must. Follow a low sugar diet, and use fluoride toothpaste/mouth rinses to combat the effects of oral dryness on your teeth, gums, and oral tissues. Since people with dry mouth are prone to fungal infections like thrush or oral candidiasis, they require topical antifungal treatment such as mouth rinses and dissolving tablets. Your dentist is the best person to guide you on your treatment options.
Whether or not you have a dry mouth, it’s important to maintain a healthy diet and take good care of your teeth by brushing, flossing, and visiting your dentist regularly. This will not only keep dry mouth symptoms at bay but promote your overall wellbeing. If you are in the Brampton neighbourhood, book an appointment with our family dental clinic.