Reviewed By: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
Reviewed on 3/31/2017
What Happens Without Enough Saliva
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.
Unpleasant Side Effects
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.
Medications Can Cause Dry Mouth
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.
Head and Neck Injuries
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.
Sjögren’s Syndrome and Other Medical Causes
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.
Those with diabetes may also experience dry mouth when their blood sugar levels are too high. This may be a result of diabetes medications. HIV patients sometimes get dry mouth, too.
Yet Another Reason to Stop Smoking
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.
A Doctor Can Treat the Symptoms
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.
Talk to Your Dentist About Mouth Dryness
When saliva stops flowing or slows, your teeth may be at risk. Fortunately, dentists are trained to resolve the worst oral health effects of xerostomia. By making regular dental checkups a routine, you can become better equipped to decrease the bad health effects of dry mouth.
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.
Some Tips to Boost Saliva Production
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.
Want to Fight Dry Mouth? Drink More Water
t 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.