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For many, dry mouth is more than a nuisance

In withdrawing from the U.S. Open last month, professional tennis star Venus Williams shed some light on a personal struggle with a condition that frustrates many people.

Dry mouth, also called xerostomia, results from an inadequate flow of saliva. It can be a symptom of several conditions and disorders, including Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder from which Ms. Williams and more than 3 million Americans suffer. 

Dry mouth is common in older adults and can also be caused by certain medications. It's a problem for so many because of the important role that saliva plays in bodily functions. Adequate salivary flow lubricates oral tissues, cleanses the mouth and begins the digestive process as foods are chewed. When salivary flow is reduced, harmful organisms grow in the mouth.

"Each day, a healthy adult normally produces around one-and-a-half liters of saliva, making it easier to talk, swallow, taste, digest food and perform other important functions that often go unnoticed," said Dr. Fares Elias, immediate past president of the Academy of General Dentistry. "Those not producing adequate saliva may experience some common symptoms of dry mouth."

For some people, having the sensation of a dry mouth is simply a nuisance. For others, the condition causes serious health problems. Left untreated, dry mouth may lead to oral yeast infection, a burning sensation, rampant tooth decay, bad breath and other oral health problems. Chronic dry mouth can make swallowing difficult.

Dry mouth can result from radiation treatment for head and neck cancers, salivary gland disease, emotional stress, hormonal alterations associated with pregnancy and menopause, and autoimmune diseases such as diabetes and Sjogren's syndrome, a chronic disorder in which white blood cells target the body's moisture-producing glands.

Prescription and over-the-counter medications are the most common causes of dry mouth. That's why the American Dental Association, Academy of General Dentistry, American Academy of Periodontology and American Pharmacists Association recently undertook a joint campaign to raise awareness of the impact of medications that can lead to dry mouth. These include antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers, diuretics, antihypertensives and antidepressants.

If you think a medication is causing dry mouth, tell your dentist or physician. In some cases, a different kind of prescription can provide some relief.

Another way to get relief is to use artificial saliva—available at local pharmacies—that's recommended by your dentist or physician to keep tissues moist. Other remedies include sugar-free gum or candy; frequent sips of water; alcohol-free oral rinses; and restricted intake of caffeine, alcohol and carbonated beverages.

Most important, regular dental checkups are recommended so that your dentist knows what medications you're taking.

"Be sure to carry an up-to-date medication list at all times, and tell your dentist what medications you are taking and other information about your health at each appointment," said Thomas Menighan, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Pharmacists Association. "In some cases, a different medication can be provided or your dosage modified to alleviate dry mouth symptoms. Talk to your pharmacist if you have any questions regarding your medication."

©2010 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

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