When we don't produce enough saliva, the mouth gets dry and uncomfortable. Dry mouth or xerostomia is common in older people affecting around one in five elderly people.
Saliva moistens and cleanses the mouth, helps to process food and prevents infection by controlling bacteria and fungi in the mouth.
Some people mistake thirst for dry mouth, but the causes are different.
Dry mouth can cause discomfort, affect speech and swallowing, affect dentures, cause bad breath, increase bacteria in the mouth and cause tooth decay in the long term.
What causes dry mouth?
There are several causes of dry mouth:
- Effects of certain medications. Dry mouth is a common side effect of some prescription and non-prescription drugs.
- Side effects of certain medical conditions, for example Sjögren's syndrome, and infections.
- Side effect of certain medical treatments. Damage to the salivary glands, the glands that produce saliva, for example, from radiation to the head and neck and chemotherapy treatments for cancer, can reduce the amount of saliva produced.
- Nerve damage. Dry mouth can be a result of nerve damage to the head and neck area from an injury or surgery.
- Dehydration. Conditions that lead to dehydration, such as fever, excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea, blood loss and burns can cause dry mouth.
- Surgical removal of the salivary glands.
- Lifestyle. Smoking or chewing tobacco can affect saliva production and aggravate dry mouth. Continuously breathing with your mouth open can also contribute to the problem.
What are the symptoms of dry mouth?
Common symptoms of dry mouth include:
- A sticky, dry feeling in the mouth
- Frequent thirst
- Sores in the mouth; sores or split skin at the corners of the mouth; cracked lips
- A dry feeling in the throat
- A burning or tingling sensation in the mouth and especially on the tongue
- A dry, red, raw tongue
- Problems speaking or difficulty tasting, chewing, and swallowing
- Hoarseness, dry nasal passages, sore throat
- Bad breath
Why is dry mouth a problem?
Besides causing the aggravating symptoms mentioned above, dry mouth also increases a person's risk of gingivitis (gum disease), tooth decay and mouth infections, such as thrush.
Dry mouth can also make it difficult to wear dentures.
How is dry mouth treated?
If you think your dry mouth is caused by certain medication you are taking, talk to your doctor. He or she may adjust the dose you are taking or change you to a different drug that doesn't cause dry mouth.
In addition, an oral rinse to restore mouth moisture may be prescribed. If that doesn't help a medication that stimulates saliva production, called pilocarpine hydrochloride may be prescribed.
Other steps you can take that may help improve saliva flow include:
- Sucking on sugar-free sweets or chewing sugar-free gum
- Drinking plenty of water to help keep your mouth moist
- Protecting your teeth by brushing with a fluoride toothpaste, using a fluoride rinse, and visiting your dentist regularly
- Breathing through your nose, not your mouth, as much as possible
- Using a room humidifier to add moisture to the bedroom air
- Using an over-the-counter artificial saliva substitute