What is dry mouth?

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Dry mouth (also known as xerostomia) is a condition that prevents or slows the production of saliva. It is a chronic condition that is common but often overlooked.

The prevalence of dry mouth is unclear due to limited data.

A reduction in salivary flow can cause difficulties in tasting, chewing, swallowing and even speaking in more severe cases. Other signs and symptoms, may include:

  • Bad breath
  • Inflammation and fissuring (splitting and cracking) of the lips
  • Dryness in the mouth
  • Increased prevalence of fungal infections in the mouth, such a thrush

Dry mouth can increase your chance of developing tooth decay, demineralization of teeth, tooth sensitivity and/or oral infections (such as thrush).

What are the causes of dry mouth?

There are many causes of dry mouth, including:

  • Adverse side-effects of medications, including antistamines, antidepressants along with others. Ask your GP about possible side effects of medications when they are prescribed.
  • Toxicity of chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy to the head & neck area
  • Chronic diseases such as Alzeimhers and Diabetes.
  • Injury or surgery, which may cause potential damage to the nerves in the head & neck area.

In some cases dry mouth may be an indicator of Sjorgens syndrome. Sjorgens syndrome is a chronic auto-immune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own moisture producing glands, the tear secreting and salivary glands as well as order organs.

The severity of the dry mouth depends on the cause and varies in each case.

Saliva is the mouth's primary defence against tooth decay, it plays a vital role in maintaining the health of hard & soft tissues in the oral cavity.

Saliva washes away food and other debris, which may accumulate in the mouth. Saliva also helps neutralise the acids which are produced by bacteria in the mouth.

Without saliva, extensive tooth decay can occur.

Tips to Avoid a Dry Mouth

Some general lifestyle tips for relieving dry mouth include:

  • sipping water or sugarless, caffeine-free drinks
  • sucking on ice chips
  • using lip lubricants frequently - to avoid cracking of the lip tissue.
  • chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on sugar-free candy.
  • avoiding salty or spicy food or dry, hard-to-chew foods.
  • avoiding sticky, sugary foods
  • avoiding irritants such as alcohol (including alcohol-containing mouth rinses), tobacco, and caffeine

Dental and oral health-specific recommendations are as follows for patients with dry mouth:

  • Brush teeth twice a day with a fluoridated toothpaste (for caries protection)
  • Use floss every day to clean interdental spaces.
  • Schedule a visit with your dentist twice a year for a full check up.
  • Sip water frequently to help keep oral tissues lubricated.
  • Chewing sugar free chewing gum can help stimulate saliva production.
  • If necessary, your dentist can apply fluoride varnish or prescribe higher strength fluoride toothpaste for additional cavity protection.
  • Your dentist can also advise about salivary substitutes on the market and give a tailor-made suggestion for your individual case, as required.

Please visit your dentist for advice about how to manage dry mouth.

Oonagh Cronin
Dental Hygienist (Ireland)