Saliva, or spit, is made by the salivary glands and is very important for a healthy mouth. It moistens and breaks down food, washes away food particles from the teeth and gums, and helps people with swallowing. In addition, saliva contains minerals such as calcium and phosphate that help keep teeth strong and fight tooth decay.
Dry mouth, also called xerostomia (ZEER-oh-STOH-mee-ah), is the condition of not having enough saliva to keep the mouth wet. Dry mouth can happen to anyone occasionally—for example, when nervous or stressed. However, when dry mouth persists, it can make chewing, swallowing, and even talking difficult. Dry mouth also increases the risk for tooth decay or fungal infections in the mouth because saliva helps keep harmful germs in check.
Dry mouth is not a normal part of aging. If you think you have dry mouth, see your dentist or doctor to find out why your mouth is dry.
There are several possible causes of dry mouth:
- Side effects of some medicines. Hundreds of medicines can cause the salivary glands to make less saliva. For example, medicines for high blood pressure, depression, and bladder-control issues often cause dry mouth.
- Disease. Sjögren’s syndrome, HIV/AIDS, and diabetes can all cause dry mouth.
- Radiation therapy. The salivary glands can be damaged if they are exposed to radiation during cancer treatment.
- Chemotherapy. Drugs used to treat cancer can make saliva thicker, causing the mouth to feel dry.
- Nerve damage. Injury to the head or neck can damage the nerves that tell salivary glands to make saliva.
Symptoms of dry mouth include:
- A sticky, dry feeling in the mouth
- Trouble chewing, swallowing, tasting, or speaking
- A burning feeling in the mouth
- A dry feeling in the throat
- Cracked lips
- A dry, rough tongue
- Mouth sores
- An infection in the mouth
- Bad breath
Your doctor or dentist will review your medical history and ask about any medications you take. He or she may also suggest blood tests or a test that measures how much saliva you produce.
Depending on the cause of your dry mouth, your health care provider can recommend appropriate treatment. For example, if medication is causing dry mouth, the doctor or dentist may advise changing medications or adjusting the dosages, or may prescribe a saliva substitute.
There are also self-care steps you can take to help ease dry mouth, such as drinking plenty of water, chewing sugarless gum, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol. Good oral care at home and regular dental check-ups will help keep your mouth healthy.
You can relieve dry mouth symptoms by:
- Sipping water or sugarless drinks often.
- Sipping water or a sugarless drink during meals. This will make chewing and swallowing easier. It may also improve the taste of food.
- Avoiding drinks with caffeine, such as coffee, tea, and some sodas. Caffeine can dry out the mouth.
- Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candy to stimulate saliva flow; citrus, cinnamon or mint-flavored candies are good choices. Some sugarless chewing gums and candies contain xylitol and may help prevent cavities.
- Avoiding spicy or salty foods, which may cause pain in a dry mouth.
- Avoiding tobacco or alcohol. They dry out the mouth. If you are a current smoker, consider quitting.
- Using a humidifier at night.