Xerostomia is a condition that develops when your salivary glands, which normally keep your mouth moist by secreting saliva, are not working properly.
A prolonged lack of saliva has significant implications. First, it causes bad breath or halitosis. Second, it can be harder to eat with a dry mouth. Tasting, chewing, and swallowing may also become difficult. As a result, your nutrition could be negatively impacted. And third, a dry mouth creates ideal conditions for tooth decay to grow. This is harmful to your dental health. Saliva plays a key role in keeping decay-causing oral bacteria in check and neutralizing the acids these bacteria produce. It is this acid that erodes tooth enamel and starts the decaying process.
Possible Causes of Dry MouthThere are several possible causes for xerostomia, including:
- Medications — Medications are responsible for a major amount of dry mouth cases. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, there are more than 500 medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) that cause dry mouth. The medications with the highest correlation to dry mouth are antihistamines (for allergies), diuretics (which drain excess fluid), and antidepressants. Chemotherapy drugs can also cause dry mouth.
- Radiation Therapy — Radiation of the head and neck can damage salivary glands—sometimes permanently, causing a dry mouth condition to develop. Radiation to treat cancer in other parts of the body, however, will not lead to dry mouth.
- Disease — Some systemic (general body) diseases can also cause dry mouth. Sjögren's syndrome, for example, is an autoimmune disease characterized by the body attacking its own moisture-producing glands in the eyes and mouth. Other diseases known to produce dry mouth include diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cystic fibrosis, and AIDS.
- Nerve Damage — Trauma to the head and neck can damage the nerves involved in the production of saliva, thus causing dry mouth as well.
Getting ReliefIf you suffer from dry mouth and are taking any medication regularly, it's possible that your physician can suggest either a substitute or adjust the dosage of your medication to relieve your dry mouth symptoms. If this is not possible, or has already been tried without success, here are some other ways you can counteract dry mouth:
Sip Fluids Frequently — This is particularly helpful during meals. Make sure what you drink does not contain sugar and isn't acidic, as these will both increase your risk of tooth decay. All sodas (including diet sodas) should be avoided, as they are acidic and cause harm to the tooth surface.
- Chew Sugarless Gum — This will help stimulate saliva flow. Choose a type of gum that contains xylitol, a natural sugar substitute that can help protect against tooth decay.
- Avoid Drying/Irritating Foods and Beverages — These include toast, crackers, very salty foods, spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeinated drinks.
- Don't Smoke — Smoking can dry out the mouth and increase your risk of gum disease.
- Use a Humidifier — Running a cool-mist humidifier at night can be soothing to people suffering with dry mouth.
- Use Saliva Stimulants/Substitutes — There are prescription and over-the-counter products that can either stimulate saliva or act as a substitute oral fluid.
- Practice Good Oral Hygiene — Brush your teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste; this will remove bacterial plaque and add minerals to strengthen your teeth. Don't forget to floss!
- Maintain Regular Dental Exams/Cleanings — If you have dry mouth, it's especially important that you maintain regularly scheduled visits with your local dentist.