Oral Health

Symptoms and Causes of Dry Mouth

What is Dry Mouth?

Dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, refers to any condition in which your mouth is unusually dry. The average healthy person produces about a quart of saliva daily. This watery substance helps prevent tooth decay by neutralizing acids produced by bacteria, limiting bacterial growth, and washing away food particles. However, in someone with dry mouth, salivary glands in the mouth don’t produce enough saliva to protect your mouth and teeth from harm.

What are the Symptoms?

In addition to dryness in your mouth and throat, symptoms include saliva that seems thick and stingy, a changed sense of taste, bad breath, more frequent tooth decay, problems wearing dentures, gum irritation and gum disease, and trouble chewing, speaking, and swallowing.

What Causes Dry Mouth?

In most cases, dry mouth is a side effect of medication. Hundreds of medications list dry mouth as a side effect, and among them are antihistamines, decongestants, muscle relaxants, pain medications, and drugs used to treat depression, nerve pain, and anxiety.

While aging itself doesn’t cause dry mouth, older adults are more likely to take dry mouth-inducing medications. Additionally, cancer therapy, certain autoimmune diseases, and diabetes are all known causes of dry mouth, and all are more common among older adults.

What Happens if Dry Mouth is Left Untreated?

If dry mouth is left untreated, plaque buildup can lead to cavities, gum disease, and in the most serious cases, infection and tooth loss. This, in turn, can affect an older adult’s nutritional intake. For example, an older adult suffering from tooth loss may choose to eat soft foods like mashed potatoes and bread over protein and vegetables, even when the latter options would be better for overall health.

How is it Treated?

Treatment will depend on the cause of your dry mouth. For example, if a certain medication is causing your symptoms, your health care provider may recommend you take a lower dose or a similar medication with less side effects. Your health care provider may also recommend a medication to stimulate saliva production.

An Expert Weighs In

"The best way to prevent dry mouth is to stay healthy and avoid taking unnecessary medications. Keys to battling this condition are eating well, exercising, drinking plenty of water, and having good brushing and flossing habits. Also, be sure to see your dentist for regular cleanings. If you have dry mouth, he or she can monitor the extent of your condition and its complications to help keep your mouth in great shape."
Dr. Elizabeth Randall
Periodontist, Chattanooga Periodontics and Dental Implants

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