Dry mouth is usually a temporary condition caused when the salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva. It’s a common side effect of many prescription medications and a symptom of certain diseases.
Though it can occur at any age, it is more common in older people, affecting 30% of those 65 and older.
Dry mouth isn’t life-threatening, but it can be extremely bothersome and can have negative effects on dental health. The medical term for dry mouth is xerostomia.
Medications such as antidepressants and anticholinergics, infections of the salivary gland, smoking, and some diseases are common causes of dry mouth. Permanent dry mouth can also be caused by radiation treatments for mouth, head, or neck tumours.
A disease called Sjögren’s syndrome results in permanent dry mouth. Sjögren’s syndrome is most common in women and affects up to 3% of the population. Dry mouth, along with dry eyes, and possibly other mucous membranes, is one of the symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome.
Symptoms and Complications
Dryness of the mouth can make it difficult for people to speak, eat, or swallow. Saliva flushes food particles and bacteria from the mouth. Decreased saliva causes difficulty in chewing and swallowing, and abrasion by coarse foods. A lack of saliva in the mouth allows bacteria to accumulate. This increases the risk of developing halitosis (bad breath), cavities, infections, and gum diseases.
Since taste buds can only taste food that is dissolved in liquid, people with dry mouth have trouble tasting their food. Mouth dryness also makes it harder to smell things.
Making the Diagnosis
Someone with a dry mouth and additional symptoms should be looked at by a doctor to see if a specific medical condition is causing the symptoms (such as Sjögren’s syndrome if they also have dry eyes, and inflamed joints). The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and may perform a physical exam.
The doctor can do tests to see if the salivary glands are working properly. The doctor might then do a biopsy of the salivary gland, a procedure in which a piece of tissue is taken out and looked at under a microscope.
Dry mouth is also a frequent side effect of many medications, so doctors will often ask for a medical history. The doctor may also rule out alternative causes of dry mouth, such as radiation therapy for cancer and smoking.
Talk to your doctor if your dry mouth is accompanied by tooth decay, dry eyes, dry skin, a rash or joint pain.
Treatment and Prevention
Temporary dry mouth will usually go away when the underlying infection is cured or the medications that caused it are no longer taken. If dry mouth is due to a specific medical condition, treating or managing the condition may help with the dry mouth symptoms.
Using an artificial saliva product can relieve dry mouth. You can also help it by drinking small sips of fluids throughout the day (preferably water), chewing sugarless gum, sucking on sugarless candies or ice chips, or using an alcohol-free mouth rinse.
Medications such as pilocarpine* can stimulate the salivary glands to make more saliva. Other medications, such as antihistamines and decongestants, can make dry mouth worse and therefore should be avoided if possible.
Using a humidifier at night can also be beneficial. Try to avoid smoking, drinking caffeinated or alcoholic beverages, and drinking highly acidic citric juices, as these can worsen dry mouth.
If you have dry mouth, you have to be very disciplined about brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste or using fluoride rinses to prevent tooth decay. You should avoid sugary or acidic foods and drinks to help prevent cavities. You should also see your dentist for regular checkups. If your salivary glands are sore and swollen, taking painkillers should help relieve the pain.
If you are diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, there are oral medications that can be used to improve your symptoms.
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