Dry Mouth Explained

man drinking water in hospital
Cases of dry mouth can be mild or severe, temporary or chronic. But the options available and the potential for ridding yourself of the problem are also quite good.
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The question could reasonably be asked, "How much really needs to be explained about dry mouth -- it's a self-explanatory condition, right?" While this is true -- dry mouth or xerostomia (its medical name) -- has a surprisingly long list of causes, effects and potential remedies. Dry mouth can be mildly irritating or a serious health threat that significantly decreases quality of life. It's also extremely common. Approximately 30 percent of the population suffers from the problem [source: DeVizo].

Dry mouth is the result of having little or no saliva. Saliva serves a variety of purposes: It lubricates your mouth so you can speak and annunciate properly, it keeps your mouth and teeth clean and it helps with the process of swallowing and digesting food. It also allows you to fully experience taste [sources: NIDCR; Mayo Clinic; Medicine.Net].


There's an assumption that dry mouth is a direct result of old age. While the production of saliva can decrease in elderly patients, it's often the byproduct of another unrelated issue. For example, some medications have side effects that include dry mouth [sources: DeVizo; Medicine.Net].

It's even possible for someone to believe they have dry mouth when, in fact, their salivary glands are working properly and their mouth is fully moistened. A stroke, Alzheimer's disease or other medical problems can make it difficult or impossible to sense moisture, leading the patient to the assumption that their mouth is dry [source: NIDCR].

Continuous or lengthy periods of dry mouth shouldn't be ignored. Since saliva has a cleansing effect, the lack of it will result in the buildup of bacteria in your mouth and on your teeth. These bacteria can erode your teeth and even lead to disease [source: NIDCR]. In addition, dry mouth may be a symptom of another problem. The condition could be alerting you to another ailment or disease [source: NIDCR].

Those suffering from dry mouth can take heart. There are many treatment options which range from lifestyle changes to over-the-counter and prescribed medications. It may even be a temporary condition that will take care of itself. For example, a stressful situation may lead to dry mouth. The body can respond to anxiety by distributing moisture elsewhere and decreasing saliva production [source: NPAD News].

Naturally, the first step in eliminating the problem and its effects is determining its cause. There are many possibilities, but some are far more common than others.


Causes of Dry Mouth

Dry mouth can be caused by many things, but it can largely be broken into the following categories:

  • Medications
  • Cancer Treatment
  • Disease
  • Tobacco Use

By examining each of these possibilities closer, you and your doctor may be able to pinpoint the exact cause of your problem.


Medications: More than 400 medications produce the side effect of reduced saliva production [source: DeVizo]. The types of drugs which typically cause dry mouth include high-blood pressure medicines, anti-anxiety and cold medicine. Incontinence and diarrhea medications, muscle relaxants and drugs for the treatment of Parkinson's can also lead to dry mouth [source: Mayo Clinic].

Cancer Treatment: Radiation can harm glands which create saliva. Chemotherapy can also change the consistency of your saliva -- the amount of saliva may not change but you'll still have "cotton mouth" [sources: NIDCR; Mayo Clinic].

Disease: Sjorgen's Syndrome is closely associated with dry mouth. Approximately 4 million people in the United States alone suffer from the autoimmune disease which affects glands that produce moisture [source: Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation]. Other diseases which can cause dry mouth include HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's and diabetes [source: Mayo Clinic].

Tobacco Use: It's well-documented that smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco can lead to premature aging like wrinkling. Naturally, the effects of tobacco on the mouth are no different. Tobacco products reduce moisture leading to dry mouth [source: NIDCR].

While the above categories represent the majority of dry mouth causes, there are others. Saliva is secreted at the direction of the brain and nervous system. For that reason, any damage to the nervous system can also result in dry mouth because the salivary glands are not getting the correct signals. A head or neck injury is an example of a relatively rare, though plausible, cause of dry mouth [source: NIDCR].

Once you've been able to determine the cause of dry mouth, you can explore the remedies and treatments available.


Dry Mouth Remedies

If you are taking a medication that your dentist or physician thinks may be causing dry mouth, he or she will likely want to experiment with other drug options. Since each body has its unique qualities and weaknesses, there may be an alternative medication that will work well for you without reducing, changing the consistency of or eliminating saliva.

Drugs such as Evoxac and Salogen are specifically designed to increase saliva production [source: Mayo Clinic]. Sprays, creams and ointments are also available to act as replacements for saliva so you can avoid the discomfort of dry mouth and avoid the resulting bacteria buildup which can cause mouth sores and cavities [source: NIDCR].


Momentary flare ups of dry mouth can be addressed with many different options. For instance, sugar-free candies or gum will help stimulate saliva production. You could also keep a bottle of water or crushed ice handy. And if you're suffering through a bout of dry mouth, a humidifier can be a great help, too -- since you can't bring it with you, you'll want to take full advantage of its hydrating effects while you're sleeping.

A variety of lifestyle changes can prevent or reduce the symptoms of dry mouth. Be aware of how you're breathing -- concentrate on breathing through your nose instead of your mouth. Remember that caffeine has a drying effect. Coffees, teas and sodas should be limited or avoided. Salt, alcohol and tobacco can also be eliminated or reduced to enhance moisture in your mouth [sources: Mayo Clinic; NIDCR]. Decongestants and antihistamines may dry you mouth as well.

Cases of dry mouth can be mild or severe, temporary or chronic. But the options available and the potential for ridding yourself of the problem are also quite good.

Want to know more? We have lots more information on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • DeVizo, Dr. William, "How Common is Dry Mouth?" Sharecare. (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.sharecare.com/question/how-common-is-dry-mouth
  • Mayo Clinic. "Dry Mouth." (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dry-mouth/HA00034
  • MedicineNet.com. "Dry Mouth." (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.medicinenet.com/dry_mouth/article.htm
  • National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. "Dry Mouth." (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/topics/drymouth/drymouth.htm
  • National Panic & Anxiety Disorder News. "Anxiety & Panic Attack Symptoms." (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.npadnews.com/anxiety-symptoms.asp#drymouth
  • Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation. "What is Sjogren's Syndrome?" (Dec. 6, 2011) http://www.sjogrens.org/