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Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

This information is provided by Connolly Family Dentistry

Xerostomia is the medical term used to describe dry mouth caused by inadequate or absent saliva. Xerostomia itself is not a disease, but rather a symptom found as part of certain medical conditions. Dry mouth is a serious problem, as it can contribute to other health issues. Dry mouth affects nutrition, dental health, speech, and taste. Therefore, it can significantly decrease a person’s quality of life.

Saliva plays an invaluable role in the maintenance of oral health and health in general. Saliva constantly rinses the oral cavity, thus sweeping away any food debris. Saliva has antimicrobial activity. It contains certain antibodies that act to remove and destroy bacteria. Saliva also lubricates the oral cavity which aids in eating and speaking. Finally, saliva begins the digestive process, as it contains certain enzymes that help to break down our food. It is easy to see how lack of saliva, or a dry mouth, can lead to health problems. Patients with xerostomia have an increased risk for the development of plaque and dental caries (cavities). Dry mouth can also lead to gum disease and tooth loss. Xerostomia can cause difficulty speaking and swallowing, sore throat, and hoarseness.

There are many causes for xerostomia. Probably the most frequent culprit is medication. Many prescription drugs list xerostomia as a side effect. The most common medications to cause dry mouth include antihypertensives, antidepressants, analgesics, diuretics and antihistamines. Xerostomia is one of the most common side effects of cancer therapy. Chemotherapy can change the flow of saliva, though usually only temporarily. Radiation treatment to the head and neck can temporarily or permanently damage salivary glands, thus leading to dry mouth.

Sjögren’s Syndrome is the most common disease that causes xerostomia. Sjögren’s Syndrome is a chronic autoimmune disorder in which a person’s own antibodies attack their salivary and lacrimal glands. The result is xerostomia and dry eyes. This disease occurs primarily in postmenopausal women. Other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, diabetes mellitus, cystic fibrosis, and thyroid dysfunction can all cause xerostomia. Stress, anxiety, depression and nutritional deficiencies can also lead to varying degrees of dry mouth.

The first step in the management of xerostomia is to identify the underlying cause. If the dry mouth cannot be reversed, the next step is symptomatic treatment which includes increasing any existing salivary flow, replacing lost saliva, controlling dental caries and treating any oral infections. In order to increase existing salivary flow, patients may suck on sugarless candies or chew sugarless gum. Patients should also sip water frequently throughout the day. There are several over the counter saliva substitutes that can be used to replace lost saliva and thus lubricate the mouth. Prescription products can be used in severe cases. Patients with xerostomia should avoid sugary foods and acidic foods or beverages because of their increased susceptibility to dental caries. Regular dental visits and proper oral hygiene are essential to the treatment process. Patients should brush and floss regularly, and report any unusual findings to their dentist. Patients are also encouraged to refrain from eating spicy foods and using tobacco and alcohol, as these things only serve to dry the mouth more.

Xerostomia is a common problem that if left untreated, can significantly decrease a person’s quality of life. However, with proper dental care, patient education, and appropriate treatment, the effects of xerostomia can be adequately reduced.