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Dry Mouth: Causes and Remedies

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I'm a dental hygienist, pyrography artist, avid gardener, writer, vegetarian, world traveler, and many other things!

A dry mouth is not just uncomfortable, it's also terrible for your dental health

A dry mouth is not just uncomfortable, it's also terrible for your dental health

"Warning: This medication may cause dry mouth."

To be honest, I had seen it on medicine labels a lot but had never really thought about it at all. It seemed unpleasant but boring—not as important as, "Don't drive while taking this medication," for example. A dry mouth? I'll just drink more water. Not another thought ever crossed my mind about dry mouth until I entered school for dental hygiene.

In school, I quickly learned there is an intimate relationship between a chronic dry mouth and the likelihood of developing cavities. In fact, it is a major factor in tooth decay, and much of our patient interaction revolves around this topic.

An explanation is needed, and badly. The vast majority of patients I've seen don't know why they have such a dry mouth or that it greatly increases their risk of developing cavities. It's critical to get this information out there, as the articles I've come across are generalistic and really don't explain what's happening. Some people would rather not know about the details, and that's fine—but I've never been one of those people. If something's wrong with me I want the science, I want it now, and I want it in a language I can understand. Don't you?

Causes of Chronic Dry Mouth

Dry mouth, known medically as xerostomia (zeer-o-STO-me-uh), is a common side effect of medications, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, Sjögren's syndrome, HIV / AIDS, allergies, diabetes, and aging. Though it refers to a basic dry mouth as well, the term is generally used to describe a chronic, recurring condition that causes ongoing discomfort and side effects.

Symptoms of Xerostomia

AFFECTED AREASYMPTOMS

Saliva

Decrease in amount; Foamy; Viscous; Ropy

Lips

Dry; Cracked; Fissured (angular cheilitis)

Tongue

Burning (glossopyrosis); Pain (glossodynia)

Cheeks

Dry

Salivary Glands

Swelling; Pain

Thirst

Frequent ingestion of fluids, especially while eating; Keep water at bedside

Mastication

Difficulty eating dry foods; Difficulty with the use of a denture

Swallowing

Difficulty with (dysphagia)

Speech

Difficulty with (dysphonia)

Taste

Difficulty with (dysgeusia)

Common Medications that Cause Xerostomia

  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Antihypertensives
  • Antinauseants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Antispasmodics
  • Bronchodilators
  • Decongestants
  • Diuretics
  • Muscle Relaxants
  • Sedatives
  • Tranquilizers

For more information on specific drugs, consult this list of 348 medications that cause xerostomia. Though extensive, this list is incomplete; over 1,000 medications cause xerostomia, and the list grows every day.

If you're experiencing dry mouth on a daily basis and don't see your medication in the list, look it up here and read through its "side effects." Still unsure? Consult your hygienist or dentist.

The Importance of Saliva

Salivary Glands are Important to Oral Health

Salivary Glands are Important to Oral Health

The Major Salivary Glands

The Major Salivary Glands

Saliva Usually has a pH of 5.5 - 6.0

Saliva Usually has a pH of 5.5 - 6.0

If you've ever experienced a dry mouth you know it's unpleasant! It's painful, uncomfortable, and makes it hard to taste food, digest starchy carbohydrates, and talk. People with dentures may find it extremely difficult to retain them, and tissues can become inflamed and sore, leaving them more susceptible to infection. Though these are definitely good reasons not to want a dry mouth, saliva is also extremely important in protecting teeth against cavities!

Composition of saliva:

  • 98% water
  • 2% electrolytes, buffering agents, mucus, antibacterial compounds, and various enzymes (such as salivary amylase )

Without saliva, pH will not be neutralized, and enamel will not be remineralized.

Saliva continuously bathes teeth in crucial minerals and modulates the oral pH. Calcium phosphates present in saliva are returned to soft spots in the enamel, remineralizing and reversing the beginning stages of cavities (white spot lesions.) Saliva also maintains pH in the ideal 5.5-6.0 range, important to avoiding demineralization in the first place.

Bacteria + Sugar + Acid = Decay. Each time we eat or drink something sugary or acidic, it takes 20-40 minutes, depending on what's consumed, for saliva to neutralize pH back to a normal range.

It doesn't take long before things can get out of control, but we can minimize the harm done to our teeth. We just need to realize there's a problem—the rest is easy!

Reduce the Effects of Dry Mouth

Saliva Substitutes Help Reduce the Bad Effects of Chronic Dry Mouth

Saliva Substitutes Help Reduce the Bad Effects of Chronic Dry Mouth

There are solutions to dry mouth and from the feedback I've gotten from patients, they really make a huge difference in taste, speech, and most importantly, the reduction of cavities!

Options:

  • Saliva substitute - toothpastes, mouthwashes, and moisturizing gels and sprays (Biotene & Oasis are major brands.)
  • Prescription drugs - Salagen increases the production of saliva, and Evoxac is for use by people with Sjögren's syndrome.
  • Chew xylitol gum and use xylitol toothpaste, mints, and mouthwash. Xylitol buffers pH and remineralizes teeth, prevents cavities 6 times more effectively than fluoride, and is diabetic friendly.
  • Drink more water to keep your oral tissues hydrated.

From the feedback I've received, most people prefer to use saliva substitutes and xylitol products together. Saliva substitutes are available over-the-counter in any store that has a toothpaste aisle. Xylitol products are available in health food stores and online.

With a little bit of effort, you can easily reduce the likelihood of developing cavities and can relieve the discomfort associated with xerostomia.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can probiotics cause dry mouth?

Answer: Yes, they can.

Question: Can chronic dry mouth cause bad breath?

Answer: Yes, it can. One of saliva's many roles is to wash away dead cells in the mouth. When not adequately removed, they begin to rot in the mouth, leading to oral malodor. I recommend using a stainless steel tongue scraper twice daily to remove the dead cells from your tongue. Follow this up with normal brushing and flossing, and finish with a good oral rinse like Listerine.

© 2011 Kate P

Comments

Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on April 06, 2013:

AWESOME article, Faceless39! This is a huge help. I already had to have a whole-mouth reconstruction--crowns on all of my teeth at the same time. Hopefully your info here will keep me out of more trouble (and debt LOL). You have done a great service in writing this article. Thank you for taking the time to do it! Many people will be helped by it, whether they comment or not. Voted up, awesome, etc.

Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on July 19, 2012:

Though medications and diseases are the major cause of xerostomia, they are not the only possible reasons for chronic dry mouth. Some people have low salivary flow naturally; it also decreases with age.

PS: I'm very glad to hear that this hub may have helped you out. I hope you'll give the products a try, and I think you'll find they will help!

Mary Strain from The Shire on July 19, 2012:

Thanks -- I didn't know this! I have Sjogren's and knew about the xylitol, but not why taking it was so important. Thanks for educating me about something I did not know. :-)

Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on February 04, 2012:

Thanks for the information. My mouth seems to be dry all the time now. I am not taking medicine, so I am not sure the cause. I did not realize there was a mouth wash specifically for that, so I will give it a try. Thanks!

Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on October 20, 2011:

Thanks for the great feedback, it's great to know that the article is already making a difference in people's lives! :)

Dr. Tony Thomas from Bangalore, India on October 20, 2011:

Great Information Kate...

Janet T. on October 13, 2011:

So glad I came across this article, it came up on a google search. It had gotten to a point where I needed to find some answers. My mouth has been so dry that the corners have split open. It's really sore. I'm going to go out now and buy some "saliva substitute". I wonder what it's made of, that would be interesting to know. Great post and thanks again I'm sure this will make a huge difference.

catgypsy from the South on October 12, 2011:

This is very interesting because I had no idea dry mouth could cause cavities. I have dry mouth from medications I take and appreciate this information and what I can do about it. Thanks!