Xerostomia, more commonly known as dry
mouth, is a symptom that often occurs when
saliva production decreases or stops. It is
not a disease, but can be a symptom of many
other diseases and conditions.
Saliva lubricates your mouth and helps you
to swallow and taste food. Saliva also is a
natural cavity fighter because it washes
away food and plaque from tooth surfaces,
buffers acids in the mouth and remineralizes
teeth. When saliva production decreases and
you experience dry mouth, your teeth and
gums are at increased risk of tooth decay.
People with xerostomia are more likely to
experience illnesses that affect the soft
tissues of the mouth, including oral yeast
infections (thrush). In addition, your diet
may be affected because you cannot taste
food as you normally would.
Xerostomia may occur for several reasons.
Some common causes include:
▪ A side effect of medication — Dry
mouth is a potential side effect of hundreds
of nonprescription and prescription drugs,
including pain relievers, decongestants,
antidepressants and antihistamines.
Medications are the most common cause of
xerostomia. Because of the number and types
of medications that many older people take,
xerostomia has an especially high rate of
occurrence among the elderly.
▪ A complication of diseases and
infections — Diseases such as diabetes,
anemia, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid
arthritis, hypertension and HIV infection
can be associated with dry mouth. Xerostomia
also occurs with Sjogren's syndrome, an
autoimmune disease in which the body's
antibodies attack the salivary and lacrimal
(tear) glands. Some viral infections, such
as mumps, also affect saliva production and
result in xerostomia.
▪ Dehydration — Any condition that
leads to dehydration can also cause
xerostomia. These conditions include fever,
excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhea,
blood loss or loss of water through the skin
resulting from burns.
▪ Radiation therapy — Xerostomia is a
common side effect of radiation therapy to
treat cancers in the head and neck.
Surgical removal of the salivary glands
Although xerostomia is a symptom in
itself, it may occur with other associated
▪ Frequent thirst
▪ Burning or tingling sensation,
especially on the tongue
▪ Red, raw tongue
▪ Sores in mouth or at corners of
▪ Difficulty swallowing
▪ Impaired taste
▪ Sore throat and hoarseness
▪ Bad breath
▪ Problems speaking
▪ Dry nasal passages
▪ Dry, cracked lips
▪ Increase in dental problems, such
as cavities and periodontal disease
▪ Difficulty wearing dentures
▪ Recurrent yeast infections in the
Xerostomia is a symptom, not a disease.
Tell your dentist and hygienist about your
dry mouth. Your dentist will ask you about
your medical history and will ask you to
describe your symptoms. He or she will ask
about any nonprescription drugs, herbal
remedies or prescription medications you are
taking. He or she also will examine your
mouth to assess salivary flow, cracks and
sores, and will look for signs of cavities
and gum disease.
Although the symptoms of xerostomia can
be treated, the condition often remains a
problem as long as its cause (medication,
medical illness, dehydration) remains. The
condition is permanent in cases in which the
salivary glands have been removed or
destroyed. Radiation therapy to treat cancer
in the head or neck also may permanently
affect the ability of the salivary glands to
To prevent dry mouth, avoid things that
cause it, if possible. For example, if dry
mouth is related to a medication, your
physician may be able to try a less-drying
medication, depending on your condition. You
can also take steps to prevent or manage the
symptoms associated with dry mouth.
The treatment of xerostomia focuses on
three areas: relieving symptoms, preventing
tooth decay and increasing the flow of
saliva, if possible. Your doctor will
recommend that you practice good dental
hygiene, including proper brushing and
flossing, regular dental visits and frequent
topical fluoride treatments. Your physician
may work in partnership with your dentist to
manage your condition.
Treatment is based on the severity of your
problem and the cause of your dry mouth.
Fluoride treatments can be prescribed to
help prevent cavities. Artificial saliva
products are available over the counter in
rinse, spray and gel formulations. Depending
on your medical condition and diagnosis, a
doctor may prescribe a drug that causes more
saliva to be released.
To relieve your symptoms, try the following:
▪ Drink water frequently to keep your
mouth moist. Carry water with you to sip
throughout the day, and keep water by your bed at night.
▪ Suck on sugar-free hard candies,
ice chips or sugar-free ice pops. Some
doctors believe sugary candies are as likely as dry mouth to cause
▪ If you chew gum, try sugarless gum.
▪ Use an over-the-counter oral
moisturizer or saliva substitute.
▪ Use mouth rinses or mouthwashes
that do not contain alcohol.
▪ Avoid salty foods, dry foods
(crackers, cookies, toast) and foods and
beverages with high sugar contents.
▪ Avoid drinks containing alcohol or
caffeine. These increase water loss by
triggering frequent urination.
▪ Avoid smoking.
▪ To minimize irritation of dry
tissues, use a moisturizer on your lips and
soft-bristle toothbrush on your teeth and gums.
When To Call A Professional
Dry mouth symptoms can vary greatly.
Only your dentist or physician can truly
evaluate your mouth for xerostomia. If you
feel the symptoms, discuss them with your
dentist. Untreated xerostomia can lead to
the rapid development of dental decay in an
otherwise healthy mouth. If you have to sip
water frequently throughout the day and need
liquids to swallow dry foods, you should
discuss this with your dentist.
With proper treatment, most patients
with dry mouth can regain oral comfort and
the ability to speak and taste food. With
good dental hygiene, people with xerostomia
can reduce dental problems associated with
American Dental Association
211 E. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60611
Phone: (312) 440-2500
Fax: (312) 440-2800
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