By Dr. Laura Wellener
Dry mouth (Xerostomia) is a condition that, as the name implies, causes the mouth to have less saliva thereby leaving it dry. It doesn’t sound so terrible if you’ve never experienced it. But dry mouth extends from annoying to debilitating. It is becoming more and more common, and the likelihood of having dry mouth increases as we get older. There can be several factors leading to dry mouth, but medication side effects are one of the leading causes. The more medicines we take, the greater chance we will experience dry mouth.
Saliva in our mouths provides some very important functions. First, it keeps the tissues inside our mouth moist. This aids in keeping those tissues ( the gums, the insides of the cheeks, etc.) healthy and comfortable. When decreased saliva is present, these tissues become dried and are easily irritated. The cheeks may feel “stuck” to the teeth, the tissue can tear, and sometimes a burning sensation is present. Talking may even be difficult. The inside of the mouth can feel quite sore.
Saliva also serves to help with eating by coating the food we eat, aiding in chewing and swallowing. This is the first step in the digestive process. With diminished saliva, chewing and swallowing may become difficult. This can directly impact what is eaten, often forcing us towards foods that may be easier to swallow but not necessarily good for us. Think ice cream versus celery sticks. Obviously, inability to eat as healthy as we’d like affects our entire body and well being. Our body may not be getting the good nutrition it needs to work properly. Low saliva’s effects reach far beyond the mouth.
Another of saliva’s important jobs is to help to protect our teeth from getting cavities. Saliva helps protect teeth in several ways. It helps to “wash” plaque and food debris from teeth. With low saliva, plaque can become more “sticky” and adheres to the teeth. The bacteria that live in our mouths can then feast on this plaque that is sticking on the teeth and can cause cavities. Saliva also has “protective qualities” in its makeup. Enzymes and minerals such as Calcium and Phosphorus help fortify teeth, which protects teeth from getting cavities. When saliva is decreased, the protection from cavities is decreased as well. This can be dramatic. Cavities can happen very quickly. The combination of thicker, stickier plaque and decreased cavity protection can be a dangerous one-two punch.
Since we know dry mouth makes us more prone to cavities, our oral hygiene habits need to be a top priority. Good brushing habits, flossing daily, and fluoride use will help minimize cavities. Regular dental visits are also very important. Be sure to tell your dentist if your mouth is dry. Your dentist can suggest solutions to minimize dry mouth’s effects, including suggesting products designed to aid with this uncomfortable condition. There are rinses, gels, and sprays designed for dry mouth relief which add moisture and help reduce the dry feeling. There are also lozenges and chewing gums specifically to help with dry mouth.
Having a dry mouth is not a pleasant situation, and there is no cure for it yet. But there are a number of effective ways to manage it, and to try to lessen its damaging and uncomfortable effects.
This post is adapted from an article written by Dr. Wellener and published in OutreachNC, July 2014