On September 16, 2016
The dry throat, the cracked lips, the parched and sticky tongue and gums, the difficulty swallowing and the thirst you can never quench… They’re all signs of xerostomia, commonly known as dry mouth, and it can be more than just an annoying problem — it can be a risk factor for dental disease and many other oral health problems, not to mention a sign of some other potentially serious health conditions.
What is Xerostomia, or Dry Mouth?
Healthy adults typically produce about 1.5 liters of saliva, which makes talking, eating, swallowing, tasting and digesting food and performing certain other functions both possible and comfortable. Saliva contains minerals that strengthen teeth and gums, clean the mouth and aid in digestion.
It’s typical for everyone at some point to feel their mouths go dry, especially when getting nervous or stressed, or after performing a strenuous task. However, if the mouth feels dry often, it can interfere with daily living and open the door for mouth sores and fungal infections, throat or mouth pain, and even trouble eating or speaking.
Other symptoms may include:
- Increased need to drink fluids when swallowing, eating or talking
- Difficulty speaking
- Burning or soreness of the mouth or throat
- Thick or stringy saliva
- Rough tongue
- Inability to eat certain foods
- Diminished or altered sense of taste
- Sleep interruptions resulting from thirst
- Problems wearing dentures
- Tooth decay
- Gum disease (gingivitis)
- Oral infections or ulcers
- Stale or bad breath
If you’re suffering from dry mouth, you should know that you aren’t alone. One out of every five people suffer from dry mouth or inadequate saliva production. Moreover, your risk increases with age — a whopping 50 percent of older adults are likely to struggle with dry mouth.
What Causes Dry Mouth?
Your dry mouth could be caused by a number of things, but if you’re taking any medications, that’s probably what’s behind it. More than 90 percent of cases stem from medications. At least 400 medications, including many of the most commonly prescribed ones, have been noted as potentially causing dry mouth, ranging from antihistamines to antidepressants, anti-inflammatories, diuretics, sedatives and narcotics. This is why older people, who generally take more medications on a regular basis, are at higher risk for dry mouth — it’s not a side effect of aging.
There may be other causes as well, including:
- Certain cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, which can permanently damage the salivary glands
- Kidney disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Autoimmune problems, including HIV/AIDs
- Sjögren’s syndrome, an immune system disorder in which white blood cells attack moisture-producing glands
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels)
- Injuries to the mouth or neck
- Smoking or tobacco use
- Excessive use of alcohol
- Hormonal changes, especially during menopause or during or after pregnancy
- Mouth breathing
- Acid reflux
- Mouthwash containing high amounts of alcohol
- Stroke and Alzheimer’s disease may cause a perception of dry mouth (even if salivary glands are functioning normally)
How Do You Diagnose Dry Mouth?
Because a small percentage of dry mouth cases can be connected to some worrying conditions, it’s important to schedule an appointment at our office to have it checked. The dentist will examine your mouth and look at your medical history. Be sure to prepare for this appointment by providing a list of all medications, vitamins and supplements you’re taking, and any key personal information, especially recent life changes or stressful events.
This exam and consultation may point to habits or medications that could be leading to your dry mouth. At-home treatments and simple lifestyle changes may be very effective and might be all you need. For example, mouthwashes containing alcohol irritateand dehydrate the mucous membranes, linking them to xerostomia. Your dentist may recommend that you switch mouthwash brands or try certain at-home dry mouth treatments.
If the issue persists, the dentist may perform a blood test, or take a radiographic scan of your salivary glands, called a sialography, to determine whether there are any stones or masses in them. They may even take a biopsy if the doctor suspects you have Sjögren’s syndrome. To do so, they’ll take a small sample of the salivary gland and process it at a lab in order to make a diagnosis.
In most cases, there are some easy dry mouth treatments that you can do at home that will alleviate the problem.
6 Home Remedies for Dry Mouth
If a parched mouth is a persistent problem for you, try these safe, effective dry mouth treatments that you can try at home:
Hydrate your mouth
Dehydration is one of the most common — and easily treatable — reasons behind dry mouth. Start by making sure you’re getting enough fluids each day. This helps your body produce more saliva, alleviating the symptoms. In addition to getting the requisite eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day, you could also try these hydration hints:
- Suck on ice.
- Avoid bottled waters in exchange for fluoride-rich waters. Many cities have fluoride added to their water supplies. Fluoride helps to wash away and dilute the acidic effects of cavity-causing foods.
- Eat more water-based foods, such as watermelon, pineapple, cucumber or celery.
- Enjoy lots of citrus — orange, lemon and grapefruit. They hinder bacterial growth, conceal odor and accelerate saliva production.
- Drink more fruit or vegetable juices, or put them in smoothies.
- Try coconut water as an alternative to water. One to two glasses a day will improve hydration.
- Drink herbal teas, including green tea or chamomile.
- Eat foods containing liquids, such as soups and stews, and add more sauces and gravies.
- To avoid irritating and drying out an already irritated mouth, avoid sticky, dry, salty or overly spicy foods.
Spice things up
Ancient peoples used herbs and spices for much more than flavoring foods — many used these items to ward off illnesses or treat symptoms of some health problems. The following flavor-boosters have also been known to pack a quenching punch for a dry mouth:
- Anise seed: This licorice-flavored spice helps fight bad breath.
- Fennel seed: Another bad-breath fighter, fennel has flavonoids that stimulate the flow of saliva.
- Cayenne pepper: This is one of the best remedies for dry mouth, bolstering taste buds and stimulating saliva production. Sprinkle it on food or take it in capsule form. Alternatively, make a paste with it by grinding a little onto a wet finger and rubbing it around on your tongue. Initially it may burn, but it will stimulate your salivary glands.
- Aloe vera: This age-old remedy protects mouth tissue and enhances taste buds. Drink as a juice once a day, use as a mouth rinse a few times each day, or apply as a gel with a cotton swab two to three times daily.
- Rosemary: This freshly scented herb helps fight germs that may build up in the mouth.
- Parsley: This vitamin-packed herb is a natural breath sweetener.
- Cardamom: Chew cardamom seeds after a meal — they moisten the mouth and relieve bad breath.
- Ginger: Long used to increase appetite and as a remedy for nausea, ginger — as a chew or in tea — activates salivary glands and refreshes the mouth. Sip a few cups of ginger tea with honey each day.
- Slippery elm: When mixed with water, the mucilage inside this herb creates a slick gel that can coat and soothe a dry mouth and throat. Drink it as a hot tea each day, or run it on the mouth and leave on for a few minutes at a time, once or twice daily.
- Cinnamon: An oil in this spice, cinnamic aldehyde, reduces mouth bacteria.
Avoid those vices
As if you needed another reason to give up sugar, caffeine, alcohol and smoking, here it is: All of them contribute to dry mouth. Caffeine (found in coffee, tea, sodas and chocolate) and alcohol are diuretics. They flush out liquids, including the saliva you desperately need. Teas contain tannins, a naturally occurring compound that creates a dry sensation in the mouth. Smoking and tobacco inhibits saliva production and irritates your mouth. Meanwhile, sugar creates a harmful acidic environment for your teeth, that when combined with a lack of saliva, can greatly increase your chance for tooth decay. Suck or chew on sugarless gums or candies, especially those with citrus, cinnamon or mint flavors and containing xylitol, to stimulate saliva flow and freshen breath, without also causing additional harm to your teeth. (Note that when consumed in large amounts, xylitol may cause diarrhea or cramping, so limit daily intake.)
Sometimes called “oil pulling,” the use of household oils — coconut, grapeseed, olive or even sesame — is an ancient Ayurvedic practice for treating dry mouth. Simply swish a tablespoon of the oil around in your mouth for several minutes (don’t gargle or swallow it) and then spit it out. Follow it up with a warm water rinse, then brush your teeth as usual. This helps to moisten your mouth and eliminate bad breath.
Adjust your sleep habits
“Sleep on it” may be great advice for solving your dry mouth dilemma as well. There are numerous steps you can take during your pre-bed routine to stave off dry mouth, including:
- Use a humidifier.
- This appliance adds moisture to the air in the room, helping to reduce dry mouth symptoms.
- Breathe through your nose, not your mouth.
- Make a conscious effort to breathe through your nose as you lie in bed. Talk to your doctor about your snoring and how to keep your mouth closed during sleep. The problem may be narrow or obstructed nasal airways, which is causing you to breathe through your mouth.
- Don’t wear dentures while you sleep.
- Instead, keep them clean overnight by soaking them.
- Before bed, use fluoride toothpaste and rinse with a non-alcohol mouthwash.
- In fact, some mouthwashes contain xylitol (the same ingredient in many sugar-free gums) and are designed for dry mouth sufferers. The American Academy of Oral Medicine lists several brands of alcohol-free mouthwashes and rinses on its website.
- You could even try making this homemade mouthwash:
- Combine one teaspoon of dried rosemary, one teaspoon of dried mint, one teaspoon of anise seed and two and a half cups of boiling water. Cover and steep for about 15 – 20 minutes, strain and refrigerate until you’re ready to use. Gargle with it — this refreshing natural concoction blends breath freshening power with a boost to the salivary glands.
- Keep water nearby at night and sip it during waking moments.
- Moisturize your lips with balm or lotion before sleep to prevent cracking or chapped lips.
Reproduce your saliva
Talk to your dentist or your local pharmacist about over-the-counter saliva substitutes that might aid dry mouth problems. These are likely to contain xylitol and come in spray, rinse or swab versions, in gel or liquid form. The American Academy of Oral Medicine lists several brands of saliva substitutes on its website. These artificial saliva products treat the symptoms but don’t cure the problem, so it’s still a good idea to talk to your dentist about what might be causing your dry mouth. Artificial saliva contains many of the ingredients found in real saliva — water, buffering agents, flavoring agents and cellulose derivatives that increase moistening ability — but they don’t contain the antibacterial and digestive elements that natural saliva contains, and which help us to eat and process food properly. The AAOM suggests using them instead of drinking water just before sleeping (especially if water is causing you to have to make several trips to the bathroom at night), as well as right after you wake up in the morning. The American Dental Association recommends that you look for a saliva substitute that bears the ADA seal.
Of course, one of the best ways to prevent dry mouth or to minimize symptoms is to maintain good oral health care habits. This includes brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, flossing, cutting back on sugar and visiting your dentist twice a year for regular checkups.
If these home remedies aren’t doing the trick and dry mouth is still an ongoing problem for you, you should probably talk to your doctor about adjusting any medications you may be on. As we said earlier, the problem is likely a result of your medications, and there may be an alternative that doesn’t dry out your mouth.
Also, come talk to us at Donoho Dental. The dentist may prescribe something called a secretogogue, which is a drug that increases salivary flow. Common medications that stimulate saliva production are pilocarpine and cevimeline. These are used especially in cases where patients have Sjögren’s syndrome or are going through head and neck radiation treatments. They may also fit you for a fluoride tray and recommend that you use it with a fluoride rinse once or twice a week to control the formation of cavities that may otherwise result from your dry mouth.
The staff at Donoho Dental wants you to feel comfortable talking about any oral problem that may be causing you discomfort, including the common problem of dry mouth. Schedule an appointment today to find out how we can help.