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What Is Dry Mouth and What Can You Do About It

Whether you’re nervous, anxious or simply dehydrated, everyone gets dry mouth from time to time. But, if your mouth continually feels like the Sahara Desert, you may have xerostomia, a dry mouth condition where you don’t produce enough saliva to keep your mouth moist.

The reason for your dry mouth can have many causes—some temporary or permanent. Most of the time, dry mouth can be handled with home remedies, but other times you may need the help of a dentist or ear, nose and throat specialist.

In this article, we explore the importance of saliva, the symptoms and causes of dry mouth and how it's typically treated.

Why is saliva important?

Apart from salivating at the sight of a juicy hamburger or dessert, saliva has several other important purposes. Saliva helps us chew, taste, swallow and digest food. It also plays an important role in our dental health.

“Among its many functions, saliva also maintains gums and teeth, helping to prevent things like cavities and infections,” said Bruce Stewart, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Banner Health. “Decreased saliva may allow for bacterial growth resulting in tooth decay and gum disease, halitosis or bad breath and issues with swallowing food.”

What are the symptoms of dry mouth?

Everyone can experience dry mouth from time to time. Your mouth and tongue may feel sticky or parched and you may have the urge to chug a bunch of water. Other symptoms include:

  • Trouble speaking, chewing or swallowing
  • Dry or sore throat and raspy/hoarse voice
  • Bad breath
  • Change in taste

What causes dry mouth?

Nerves and anxiety before a big presentation, dehydration or getting older are common causes for dry mouth, but other contributing factors to your problem could be:

Medications

If you’ve ever seen a prescription drug commercial, you’re bound to hear “dry mouth” as one of the known side effects. “Many medications such as antihistamines block the neurotransmitters that the body uses to produce saliva,” Dr. Stewart said. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, dry mouth is a side effect of more than 400 medications.

Radiation and chemotherapy

Radiation therapy for head and neck cancers can damage the salivary glands that result in less saliva production. In addition, drugs used to treat cancer can change the nature of saliva as well. They can make the saliva thicker. Some dry mouth may be temporary depending on the dose and areas treated.

Tobacco and alcohol use

Drinking alcohol, smoking or chewing tobacco can increase dry mouth symptoms. “Smoking decreases saliva production, and alcohol and caffeine can both cause dehydration that will also reduce and thicken saliva,” Dr. Stewart said.

Certain medical conditions

Dry mouth can be a symptom of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS, salivary gland infections, diabetes, sleep apnea and Sjogren’s syndrome. “Autoimmune diseases, such as Sjogren’s, cause the body’s immune system to attack healthy salivary glands and damage them,” Dr. Stewart said.

How is dry mouth treated?

If you find your mouth is dry, there are a number of things you can try. The important thing is to not ignore symptoms and to speak to a health care provider if it's persistent.

“Your doctor can evaluate you for potential treatable causes of dry mouth,” Dr. Stewart said. If medication is the cause, they may lower your dosage or switch to a medication that doesn’t cause dry mouth. They may also prescribe medication that boosts saliva production.

Here are some additional things you can do at home to help minimize dry mouth:

  • Drink plenty of water and avoid sugary drinks and caffeine.
  • Chew sugarless gum or suck on sugarless hard candy to stimulate saliva.
  • Avoid using tobacco and drinking alcohol.
  • If you snore or mouth breathe at night, use a bedside humidifier to prevent excessive oral cavity dryness.
  • Use over-the-counter saliva substitutes or artificial saliva to relieve the discomfort caused by dry mouth.

If you are experiencing persistent dry mouth, visit with a health care provider to discuss potential treatment options.

Related articles:

Ear, Nose and Throat

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