By Dr. Jody Zajacz
When people hear “dry mouth”, they think a simple sip of water will do the trick. But for some individuals, persistent dry mouth can be a debilitating condition that affects their way of life and their sense of well-being – and it could put them at risk for greater oral health complications.
In my last post on the oral health of seniors, I touched on dry mouth, or xerostomia, as a complication that is common in aging adults. However, dry mouth is a condition that affects people of all ages and I think it warrants a greater discussion.
Dry mouth occurs when the glands that produce saliva do not work properly. Saliva helps wash away food from your teeth and neutralizes the acids produced by bacteria in the mouth. Without an adequate flow of saliva, your mouth’s first line of defense against plaque is compromised and this can lead to tooth decay.
Problems associated with dry mouth include: hoarseness and a sore throat; a burning sensation in the mouth and tongue; sores in the mouth; cracked lips; difficulty speaking, chewing and swallowing; dry nasal passages; and bad breath.
Dry mouth is not a disease; it is either a symptom of a health condition or a side effect of certain medications and treatments. Here are the most common causes of dry mouth.
Being dehydrated can dry out the mucous membranes in your mouth, decreasing saliva. You can become dehydrated by not drinking enough water, or though fever, excessive physical exercise, vomiting and diarrhea. Alcohol also has a dehydrating effect on the body.
Certain chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatments used to treat cancer are linked to dry mouth. But for the majority of sufferers, dry mouth is caused by medications used to treat depression, anxiety or psychotic disorders; pain (muscle relaxants); allergies and colds (antihistamines and decongestants); asthma (certain bronchodilators); high blood pressure (diuretics); and acne, among others.
Make sure you inform your dentist of all the medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, you take, as well as vitamins and herbal supplements. Your dentist will take into account all the possible interactions between your medications and your oral health so any side effects can be identified and treated accordingly.
There are many connections between diabetes and oral health. According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, diabetics with poorly managed blood glucose levels have a decrease in saliva. Insufficient moisture can cause both dry mouth and a burning sensation on your tongue and the lack of moisture can eventually lead to an irritation of the entire lining of the mouth.
Some autoimmune disorders cause the body’s immune system to mistakenly attack its own tissues, causing inflammation in the glands of the body responsible for producing saliva and tears. Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus are the more common disorders.
Dry mouth can also happen because of a drop in estrogen that occurs with menopause. These changing hormone levels affect the salivary glands.
Smoking or chewing tobacco can affect saliva production and aggravate dry mouth.
There are ways to restore moisture in your mouth to combat the impact that dry mouth can have on your teeth and gums.
- Ask your physician about changing your medication or dosage.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day to moisten your mouth. Drinking water during meals helps with chewing and swallowing.
- Use sugar-free gum or lozenges to stimulate the production of saliva.
- Avoid sugary or acidic foods and beverages that can contribute to acid erosion in your teeth, such as carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices and alcohol.
- Brush with a fluoride toothpaste. You can also use a fluoride rinse before bedtime.
- Don’t use a mouthwash that contains alcohol
- Use an over-the-counter oral moisturizer or saliva substitute.
- Stop using tobacco. Ask your dentist or physician for help in quitting.
- Avoid using over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants.
- Use a room humidifier at night to add moisture to the air.
If dry mouth is left untreated, you can develop tooth decay, gum disease and be at a greater risk for fungal or viral infections in your mouth. If you suffer from persistent dry mouth, see your dentist for a proper diagnosis – this will help in developing a treatment plan.
Dr. Jody Zajacz is a general dentist practising and living in Toronto and the mother of two young daughters.