Dry mouth, cotton mouth, the pasties – no matter what you call it, the feeling that there’s no moisture in your mouth is unpleasant and uncomfortable. Experiencing a dry mouth is normal from time to time, and about half of the population experiences it to some extent during their lifetimes. It can range from a minor annoyance to a potentially serious issue.
The medical term for dry mouth is “xerostomia,” and it describes that feeling when your mouth doesn’t have enough saliva in it to stay moist. When you’re experiencing it, normal behaviors like swallowing or even talking can become difficult. If you get dry mouth occasionally, there’s probably no reason to worry; however, chronic dry mouth can be a sign of another medical condition, or it can lead to its own problems down the road.
What Causes Dry Mouth?
- Taking medications, including antihistamines, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and blood pressure medication
- Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is an immune system disease that affects the mucous membranes and causes dry mouth and dry eyes
- Diseases that affect your connective tissues, like lupus, sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis
- Receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer
- Chronic conditions like hepatitis, HIV, depression, anxiety, or diabetes
Dry mouth is a common complaint amongst the elderly, and scientists once thought it was a natural consequence of aging. However, studies have shown that there’s nothing about aging to indicate that it causes dry mouth.
Now, researchers believe that the older you get, the more likely you are to have experienced health conditions, treatments (like chemotherapy), or to be taking medications that lead to dry mouth.
Xerostomia vs. SGH
Xerostomia is a subjective condition, and the term applies specifically to the feeling that your mouth is too dry. This feeling can vary from person to person, and at this time, there’s no way to measure or compare the dryness among those who experience it – although some studies have tried unsuccessful tactics like taking pictures of the tongues of people who have dry mouth.
When patients complain of xerostomia, doctors currently attempt to assess the severity by asking questions to the person who’s experiencing it.
In addition to xerostomia, there is another dry mouth condition known as salivary gland hypofunction, or SGH. SGH refers to how much saliva your glands are actually producing, so unlike xerostomia, SGH can be measured.
Doctors can either stimulate your three major saliva glands with citric acid or a piece of paraffin, or they can measure your saliva production without any stimulation to get an idea of how dry your mouth is on a normal basis.
But is SGH connected to or a cause of xerostomia? After all, if you feel like you have dry mouth, logic seems to dictate that your salivary glands are probably not making enough saliva.
Surprisingly, research has found that they’re actually separate conditions, and they rarely occur simultaneously. Xerostomia is experienced by as many as 42% of people and SGH has been reported by up to 47%, but both conditions happen together in just 2% to 6% of people.
Dry Mouth Symptoms and Signs
No matter what causes dry mouth, the symptoms are similar. If you’re experiencing xerostomia or you’ve been diagnosed with SGH, you may experience some of these common signs and symptoms:
- Chapped or peeling lips
- Dry tongue
- Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- Trouble speaking, or changes in your voice
- Coughing fits or choking
- A burning feeling or sensitivity to spicy foods
- A bitter, metallic, or salty taste in your mouth
- Pain or swelling in your saliva glands
- Sores in your mouth
- Oral infections
While most of these symptoms seem to be minor, they can take a toll on the person experiencing them, and can lead to more serious consequences down the road.
Long-term Effects of Dry Mouth
Over time, dry mouth can affect your oral health as well as your overall health. When you don’t have enough saliva to neutralize the acids in your mouth that are created by bacteria, those acids can pull minerals out of your teeth or create tartar that leads to gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth decay. Gum disease has also been linked to other health conditions, like cancer and heart disease.
Saliva also affects your ability to taste, so constant dry mouth can interfere with your ability to enjoy food. It also aids in digestion by helping to break down food while it’s in your mouth, and by providing digestive enzymes that help your body process starch. Dry mouth can eventually cause digestive issues as your body becomes less able to break down foods.
Managing Dry Mouth
Managing dry mouth largely depends upon what’s causing it. If you’re experiencing medication-induced dry mouth, your doctor may try to adjust your prescriptions to reduce the effects. If it’s a side effect of a disease, a dry mouth gel or spray that acts as a saliva substitute may be able to provide relief. There are also medications that can be prescribed to stimulate saliva glands to give you a wetter mouth.
If you have dry mouth, there are things you can do to reduce your symptoms. Experts recommend:
- Sipping water frequently, which can moisten your mouth and wash away bacteria
- Using xylitol – found in sugar free candies and gum – to stimulate saliva
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine, which can dehydrate your body
- Changing your diet to eliminate dry or acidic foods
If your dry mouth becomes chronic, a biological dentist may be able to help you find the underlying cause and can suggest alternative solutions to help you manage it – like how to avoid toxins or change your diet for better oral health. Don’t have one? Check out our free Holistic Dentist Finder and make an appointment with a dentist in your area.
Even if it’s just a minor inconvenience, it’s important to control dry mouth sooner rather than later. Not only can you prevent tooth decay, choking, and other issues down the road, but you’ll pave the way for a better quality of life.
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