Although we never think about it, saliva is an essential component of the human body. It keeps our mouths moist and comfortable, helps us swallow, taste, digest food, fights bad breath and bacteria, provides necessary proteins to keep teeth healthy, and lubricates our throat, among other things. Most people don’t actively think about their spit while swallowing it every day, but those who don’t produce enough saliva certainly do!
What is Dry Mouth?
Dry mouth, also called xerostomia, affects people for various reasons and is a condition that shouldn’t be ignored if it’s persistent and chronic. The most tell-tale symptoms are a dry, sticky mouth, frequent and insatiable thirst, bad breath, canker sores, difficulty tasting, chewing, and swallowing, as well as dry nasal passages, sore throat, and voice hoarseness.
People can experience dry mouth for various reasons such as taking medications, old age, poor nutrition, substance use, and multiple diseases that limit saliva production. Drugs that most often cause dry mouth are those for psychiatric needs, anxiety, pain, allergies, diabetes, acne, high blood pressure, and many more. In fact, there are up to 500 different medications that can cause dry mouth!
Those who are undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation are also at risk of xerostomia, along with people who have autoimmune disorders. Even circumstances like high stress can cause dry mouth, especially if someone forgets to stay properly hydrated.
Diseases most commonly associated with dry mouth are Sjogren’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and many others. People who consume alcohol and tobacco in large amounts are also more prone to dry mouth. Those with allergies or sinus issues who breathe through their mouths, especially while sleeping, will also deal with xerostomia quite often.
Risks of Xerostomia
Having a bit of a dry mouth and being thirsty on occasion is quite normal, but chronic dry mouth can be harmful to one’s oral health and carry some severe health consequences if ignored. When someone’s mouth is dry all day, and especially while they sleep at night and aren’t taking sips of water, bacteria can proliferate, increasing the chance of cavities and infection.
Saliva helps the mouth get rid of debris, food particles, and dead cells built up between the teeth and the tongue. Without spit, the mouth would be a pit of rotting bacteria that can lead to anything from cavities and gingivitis to certain kinds of oral cancer. Although people with xerostomia still may have a little saliva to go around, the persistent lack of moisture can be just as detrimental to their health by creating an unhealthy environment in the mouth.
How to Treat Xerostomia?
People who suffer from dry mouth due to dehydration can get more water by setting timers or reminders on their phones or watches to take a couple of sips. Carrying a portable, reusable water bottle can make this even easier and more accessible.
Chewing sugar-free gum or periodically popping a sugar-free breath mint can help stimulate saliva production. These items must be sugar-free so as not to introduce an influx of sugar into the mouth, which can cause even more dryness and promote plaque and cavity-causing bacteria.
Ceasing the use of tobacco products, both chewed and smoked, can significantly reduce mouth dryness and many other dental or oral health issues. The same goes for alcohol consumption, which can dehydrate the body entirely, as well as the mouth itself. Caffeine has similar effects without the added chemicals in alcoholic beverages. It should be cut down to about one cup per day followed by the recommended eight glasses of water, sometimes more depending on the severity of xerostomia.
Those who experience dry mouth would benefit from practicing regimented oral hygiene, making sure to floss and brush daily. This can prevent cavities and plaque from forming, especially because xerostomia can make the mouth a hostile environment where bacteria thrive and multiply quickly. Dentists can also prescribe certain products that can help alleviate the condition a bit.
People who suffer from dry mouth caused by medication can speak to their medical providers about changing their dosage to lessen the severity of xerostomia if it’s become detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Some doctors may even recommend that their patients change medications to avoid xerostomia if it’s become bothersome and causing other health concerns.
Environmentally, people can use humidifiers in their bedrooms at night if they’re frequently waking up with a dry mouth and sore throat. Allergy-sufferers can avoid having to take extra medication by using air purifiers in their homes to eliminate additional allergens that may seep in from the outdoors.
Medications for Xerostomia
Dentists can recommend various oral rinses and moisturizers for people who suffer from chronic dry mouth and prescription medication that is considered artificial saliva. They’re also known as saliva substitutes and have no chemical action. They’re used to simulate saliva’s function when a person cannot produce their own. This supplemental prescription is not a cure, but it can help lessen the discomfort that people may experience with very severe xerostomia, especially while also undergoing treatment for a co-occurring disease or treatment for an illness.
Artificial saliva can come in several formulations, including rinses, sprays, swabs, gels, and tablets that dissolve in the mouth. While most of these are available only through prescription, some are also available over-the-counter but may not be as readily found in average drug stores.
The FDA has approved several medications to help with xerostomia that stems from other illnesses such as Sjogren’s syndrome and cancer radiation treatment of the head or neck.
If you are experiencing chronic dry mouth and cannot remedy the condition with our suggestions, speak with your dentist or medical provider as soon as possible. You may be suffering from a potentially serious health condition you’re unaware of that is causing xerostomia.