Do your mouth and throat often feel dry, even when you're drinking enough water? If this is persistent, you could have dry mouth syndrome (xerostomia). This means your salivary glands aren't producing the saliva needed to clean and lubricate your mouth.
This is a common condition that's estimated to affect around 10 percent of people, and gets more common with age. There can be many underlying reasons for dry mouth. Your dentist will aim to identify the cause so they can recommend appropriate treatments.
How do I know if I have dry mouth syndrome?
Temporary dryness of the mouth and throat is usually caused by dehydration and can be relieved by drinking fluids. If you have dry mouth syndrome, dryness may continue or return shortly after drinking.
Talk to your dentist or doctor if you have some of the following symptoms:
- dry, sticky or burning sensation in your mouth
- thick or stringy saliva
- sore throat
- tongue feels rough or sticks to the roof of your mouth
- thirst remains after drinking
- trouble chewing or swallowing, especially dry foods
- changes to taste or speech
- bad breath
- dry or cracked lips
- mouth ulcers or oral thrush
- loose dentures
Dry mouth is sometimes linked with symptoms in other parts of the body, including dryness or itchiness in the eyes or nose, joint pains, constipation and sudden weight loss.
What causes dry mouth?
If you have dry mouth syndrome, the function of your salivary glands is being impaired. This can happen for a number of reasons. The most common causes are detailed here.
Medication side effect
Dry mouth is a common side effect of many prescription medications, particularly:
- anti-anxiety medication
- blood pressure medication
- muscle relaxants
- some painkillers and sedatives
Dry mouth is associated with certain infections, diseases and other medical conditions, including:
- Alzheimer's disease
- autoimmune diseases, such as Sjogren's syndrome or HIV/AIDS
- blood loss
- infections of the mouth or salivary glands, such as oral thrush or mumps
- kidney failure
- Parkinson's disease
Tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and drug use
Smoking or chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol or caffeinated drinks can all dry out the mouth and reduce saliva flow.
Drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine are linked with severe dry mouth.
Injury or trauma
Injuries or surgical damage to nerves in the head or neck may affect the function of the salivary glands.
The salivary ducts may also get obstructed if saliva hardens.
Chemotherapy drugs can reduce saliva production. This is usually only temporary while the treatment is in progress.
Radiotherapy directed at the head and neck can damage the salivary glands and impair their function. In some cases, this can be permanent.
Snoring or mouth breathing
Snoring and sleep apnoea or breathing through your mouth can cause the mouth to dry out.
Ageing and hormones
Natural ageing and hormonal changes during pregnancy, menopause and stress can increase the risk of dry mouth and reduced saliva flow.
Why is saliva important?
Having a persistent dry mouth isn't just uncomfortable. Normal saliva flow has benefits for oral health, general health and quality of life.
Preventing tooth decay and gum disease
Saliva helps to rinse and disinfect the mouth. As well as washing away leftover food on the teeth, it also neutralises acids released by bacteria in plaque. These acids erode the teeth over time, leading to oral health problems such as tooth decay and gum disease.
Saliva also contains calcium and phosphorus, which help to rebuild enamel and protect teeth against plaque.
Saliva has antifungal properties that help to fight infections in the mouth. With less saliva, you're more likely to develop mouth sores and yeast infections such as oral thrush.
Diet and nutrition
Saliva lubricates the mouth and throat and moistens food, making it easier to chew, swallow and recognise different tastes and textures. With reduced saliva, you could find eating more difficult and less enjoyable, which could affect your diet.
Saliva also contains enzymes that help with digestion.
If you have full dentures, saliva is necessary to create the suction that holds them in place. Dentures may feel loose or uncomfortable when the mouth is too dry.
How is a dry mouth treated?
If you think you might have dry mouth syndrome, you should make an appointment to see your dentist or doctor. They'll perform a physical examination of your mouth and may take samples of your saliva.
They may also ask about your symptoms, your relevant medical history, any medications you're taking and lifestyle factors that could be contributing to the condition. This information helps them to make an accurate diagnosis and develop your personal treatment plan.
Treatment for dry mouth can involve addressing the root cause as well as relieving your symptoms.
For immediate relief, your dentist may prescribe an artificial saliva substitute or special mouthwash that serves a similar function to saliva. However, there may still be an underlying cause that needs to be treated.
If your dry mouth may be a side effect of medication, you can talk to your doctor about the possibility of changing your dose or switching to an alternative.
Treating a health problem
If your dry mouth may be related to an infection, disease, sleep disorder or other underlying health issue, treating or managing this condition could relieve the symptoms over time.
While rare, surgery may be needed if the salivary glands or ducts are blocked.
Dry mouth may be treated or prevented by improving your oral hygiene and daily routine, such as:
- giving up or cutting down on tobacco, alcohol and/or caffeine
- learning to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth
- drinking plenty of water throughout the day to help keep your mouth moist
- avoiding dry and crunchy foods and acidic drinks
- chewing sugar-free gum to stimulate your salivary glands
- taking out dentures at night
- visiting your dentist for a regular check-up and clean
See a dentist in Brisbane CBD
If you're concerned about your symptoms or you want to book a check-up with a dentist near you, get in touch with Face Value Dental today.
Better Health Channel. Dry mouth syndrome [Online] 2017 [Accessed January 2020] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dry-mouth-syndrome
Healthdirect. Dry mouth syndrome [Online] 2018 [Accessed January 2020] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/dry-mouth-syndrome
Queensland Health. Dry mouth [Online] 2008 [Accessed January 2020] Available from: https://www.health.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0023/154076/htfl_dry_mouth_v2.pdf