Dry Mouth (Xerostomia): Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Saliva is a clear liquid that is made by the salivary glands in your mouth. While saliva is mostly made up of water (about 98%), it also contains various substances that keep your mouth and teeth healthy and functioning normally. These substances include antibacterial compounds, mucous, electrolytes and enzymes. Lack of saliva can cause dry mouth (xerostomia).

Why Is Saliva Important?

Saliva plays many important roles. Some of these include:

  • Saliva neutralizes acids in the mouth that wear down tooth enamel. This helps to prevent gum disease and tooth decay
  • It also helps to remove food particles stuck between dental crevices
  • Saliva begins the process of digestion of dietary starches and fats by producing an enzyme called amylase. Amylase breaks down starch, moltrose, and dextrose into smaller molecules
  • Saliva moistens food, thus making it easier for you to chew and swallow
  • Fights germs in your mouth to prevent bacterial infections, as well as bad breath

Too Little Saliva

Now that we are familiar with the important roles saliva plays in keeping our mouth and teeth healthy, let’s discuss what happens when our salivary glands produce too little saliva.

Dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, causes the tongue, gums and other tissues in the mouth to become swollen and uncomfortable. Consequently, this creates an ideal environment for germs to thrive, which also results in bad breath!

Furthermore, since saliva helps to remove food particles from the crevices of your teeth, having dry mouth can result in tooth decay and periodontal disease. This is because there isn’t enough saliva to get rid of those food particles and protect your tooth enamel.

Other symptoms of dry mouth include a sticky, dry feeling in the mouth, frequent thirst, hoarseness, a burning/tingling sensation on the tongue, cracks on the corners of your mouth, dry nasal passages, mouth sores, trouble speaking, chewing and swallowing, and dry throat.

Causes of Dry Mouth

So, we’ve been through what saliva is, the important roles it plays in our oral health and what happens when you have dry mouth. This leaves us with an important question – what actually causes dry mouth?

Dry mouth can be caused by the following:

  • Dry mouth is a very common side effect of certain medications. This includes medications such as appetite suppressants, muscle relaxants, proton pump inhibitors, opioids, antidepressants, decongestants, diuretics, antihistamines, and many others.
  • Smoking and chewing tobacco. The nicotine in tobacco reduces saliva flow
  • Dry mouth can also be a side effect of certain diseases and infections. Some of these medical conditions include Sjörgen’s syndrome, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, anemia, cystic fibrosis, stroke, mumps, Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, and thrush. Dry mouth can also be caused by certain sleep disorders which cause you to breathe with your mouth open and snore.
  • Nerve damage can also cause dry mouth. Surgery or injury to the head and neck area can result in dry mouth.
  • Aging. Many older people experience dry mouth as they age. This is due to a variety of factors including medication use, long-term health issues, and inadequate nutritional intake.
  • Cancer treatment. Radiation and chemotherapy done to treat cancer can cause dry mouth, especially for those patients receiving treatment to the head and neck area.
  • Dehydration. Dehydration caused by fever, excessive sweating, blood loss, burns, vomiting and diarrhea can result in dry mouth.
  • Surgical removal of the salivary glands.

Treatment of Dry Mouth

There are certain things you can do to help relieve dry mouth:

  • Chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free hard candies. This can help your salivary glands stimulate the flow of saliva.
  • Stop any kind of tobacco use
  • Drink lots of water
  • Breathe through your nose, not your mouth
  • Use a humidifier at night to add moisture to the air
  • Use mouthwash specifically made for dry mouth
  • Cut down on the amount of caffeine you consume, since caffeine can contribute to dry mouth
  • Avoid using mouthwash that contains alcohol

Most importantly, if you are experiencing dry mouth, be sure to speak with your dentist to determine the underlying cause. If you suspect it is being caused by certain medications you are taking, your doctor may be able to adjust the dose, or prescribe another medication that doesn’t cause dry mouth.