Saliva coats and lubricates tissues in the mouth. It helps cleanse the mouth and begins the digestive process as you chew. Speaking, chewing and swallowing all are made easier when the mouth is moist. When saliva glands do not work properly, the mouth becomes dry.
Dry mouth results from an inadequate flow of saliva. Drying irritates the soft tissues in the mouth, which can make them inflamed and more susceptible to infection. Severe dry mouth can promote the growth of harmful organisms.
Without the cleansing and shielding effects of adequate salivary flow, tooth decay and periodontal disease become much more common. Constant dryness and the lack of protection provided by saliva contribute to bad breath. Dry mouth also causes full dentures to become less comfortable because there is no thin film of saliva to help them adhere properly to oral tissues.
An oral moisturizer — often called "artificial saliva" — is not a perfect substitute for natural saliva, which is complex physically and chemically. Although more than 99 percent of saliva is water, saliva also contains buffering agents, enzymes and minerals that keep teeth strong and play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy mouth.
Artificial salivas typically contain a mixture of buffering agents, cellulose derivatives (to increase stickiness and moistening ability) and flavoring agents (such as sorbitol). However, they do not contain the digestive and antibacterial enzymes and other proteins or minerals present in real saliva. Research is under way to try to develop artificial salivas that more closely mimic natural saliva.
Artificial saliva can be used as often as needed. Saliva substitutes are swallowed quickly and, therefore, the moistening and lubricating action has limited duration. Repeated applications may be needed. Although saliva substitutes will not cure dry mouth, they can provide temporary relief of some symptoms.
Artificial saliva does not require a prescription, but it may be difficult to find on store shelves. Check with your pharmacist if you don't see it displayed with other oral hygiene products.© American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.