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Feeling Parched: What Causes Dry Mouth?

Emily Boge, RDh, BS, MPAc

Individuals of all ages can suffer from xerostomia, a condition more commonly known as "dry mouth." Dry mouth is a direct result of decreased salivary flow inside the mouth. Saliva does more than just keep the mouth moist; it helps to digest food, neutralizes acid to decrease the risk of tooth decay and cleanses the mouth of bacteria and food debris. This condition is quite serious, affecting 10 percent of the total population, and is not only uncomfortable but can cause harm to the teeth and gums over time, if left untreated. Finding out what causes dry mouth will help to prevent this condition from affecting an individual's quality of life.

Symptoms of Dry Mouth

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), anyone can experience dry mouth. Have you ever gotten up to speak before a crowd and really needed a drink of water? Sometimes general stress or nervousness can cause dry mouth, but the more harmful effects of dry mouth become a problem when an individual has symptoms all or most of the time. These symptoms can include a cracked, sticky, or pasty tongue that may prevent an individual from tasting food or speaking clearly. The condition can also cause a burning or sore feeling inside the mouth that may include mouth sores. Dry mouth sufferers also may have trouble chewing or swallowing, which can decrease their ability to ingest necessary nutrients.

Medical Conditions Affecting Dry Mouth

Dry mouth is the result of the salivary glands not producing enough saliva. This lack of production leads to a lack of moisture and can happen for various reasons. Certain autoimmune medical conditions have a relationship to dry mouth, including Sjogren's Syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus. Other medical conditions such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS have also been shown to contribute to dry mouth. Radiation treatment and cancer chemotherapy and many medications can cause the salivary glands to reduce or alter the quantity or quality of salivary production. Nerve damage can also decrease the signals that are sent between the brain and the salivary glands and ducts that produce and transport the saliva. Understanding what causes dry mouth and how it can be treated is possible through consultation with a medical or dental professional.

Options for Treating Dry Mouth

Treatments for dry mouth include asking a doctor to change the type or dosage of the medication contributing to a patient's xerostomia. This will allow the salivary glands to produce more saliva through the use of various over-the-counter and prescription products or through the use of artificial saliva to supplement what the glands cannot produce. Dry mouth sufferers are often encouraged to decrease their consumption of acidic and sugary food and drink products because of the tooth decay risks that these products pose. Experts also advise a decrease in the consumption of substances containing tobacco, caffeine, alcohol and excessive sodium. Finally, dry mouth patients are also encouraged to drink more water and to chew sugarless gum or to suck on sugarless candies to stimulate salivary production.

Oral hygiene is of paramount importance for dry mouth sufferers and regular oral home care is essential. It includes brushing after every meal and before bed with a fluoride toothpaste, flossing at least once daily to decrease bacteria between the teeth and gums and seeing a dental professional for routine dental care. Your dental professional will decide what interval of care is best for you since dry mouth can contribute to conditions inside the mouth that require more frequent evaluation and care.

Learn more about dry mouth in the Colgate Oral Care resources.

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