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Dry mouth, also called xerostomia, is a non-life-threatening oral condition. It occurs when the salivary glands in the mouth don’t produce enough saliva to keep the mouth moist.
It’s natural for your mouth to produce less saliva during sleep. This often causes bad breath and xerostomia in the morning. Usually, the sensation goes away or reduces upon waking.
Chronic dry mouth can be attributed to diseases, medications, or problems with the salivary glands. These can cause a drop in saliva production or a change in a person’s saliva content. Children and adults who sleep with their mouths open are also more likely to experience dry mouth.
Dry mouth reduces a person’s quality of life because it affects simple day-to-day activities, such as tasting, eating, speaking, and swallowing. Untreated xerostomia can cause cavities, dental erosion, and other oral health issues.
According to Dr. Nandita Lilly, an in-house dentist at NewMouth, "dry mouth can result from a myriad of health issues. Your dentist can help you determine the root cause and offer treatment options."
Specific components of saliva—such as calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate—are key to good oral health. Saliva prevents tooth decay by protecting the enamel and controlling acid production caused by dental plaque bacteria.
When acid damages tooth enamel, saliva repairs the tooth's protective surface through remineralization. Saliva also protects against gum disease and cavities.
When saliva production decreases over time, mouth dryness is more likely to occur, which can result in tooth decay or tooth loss.
Dry mouth is directly related to the autoimmune destruction of the salivary glands (Sjogren’s syndrome). It can also be indirectly related to cancer treatment, prescription medications, recreational drugs, aging, or other oral health conditions.
Common causes of dry mouth include:
Radiation therapy used to treat cancers of the neck, head, face, or salivary glands can increase mouth dryness.
Chemotherapy for any kind of cancer can alter the flow, thickness, and content of saliva. Xerostomia may result from this as well.
Many prescription drugs can induce oral dryness, including:
Various non-prescription drugs can contribute to xerostomia:
As people age, the risk of dry mouth increases. Some health conditions associated with aging can contribute to mouth dryness, as can long-term habits such as:
Various diseases can affect salivary flow and cause dry mouth, including:
Nerve damage to the neck or head caused by an injury or surgery can decrease saliva production.
Symptoms can develop suddenly or gradually, depending on the patient’s lifestyle. Common signs of dry mouth include:
A dentist or medical doctor will listen to your concerns and examine your mouth and throat. They may also order blood tests and imaging scans of your salivary glands.
Diagnostic tests for dry mouth include:
This is a procedure that measures the flow rate of saliva. Collection devices are placed over the salivary duct orifices, and saliva production is stimulated with citric acid and then measured.
A radiographic examination of the salivary glands and ducts can identify salivary gland stones and masses.
A sample of salivary gland tissue is taken and examined. This is mostly used to diagnose Sjögren’s syndrome. The doctor may also order a biopsy in cases where malignancy (cancer) is suspected.
Xerostomia can be reversed or prevented with lifestyle changes. Depending on the condition’s severity, there are natural ways to reduce dry mouth, including:
Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription treatments are also available for dry mouth. These products can help stimulate saliva production, and some are intended to bring your saliva content back into balance:
You should always speak with a doctor before using any medications or over-the-counter products.
If you have been experiencing chronic dry mouth, see your general dentist as soon as possible. Untreated dry mouth can lead to more serious oral conditions, including:
Dry mouth increases the risk of cavities because the lack of saliva causes increased plaque buildup that is harder to remove.
Dry mouth is more likely to contain different types and increased amounts of bacteria, lowering the mouth's pH levels and making it more acidic. Both conditions can cause damage to dental tissue.
Common treatment options for cavities include fillings, inlays, onlays, and dental crowns. If cavities are left untreated, tooth decay progresses, which can lead to a root canal or tooth loss.
One of the most common complications of dry mouth is dental erosion, which occurs when acidic substances wear away tooth enamel. As saliva production decreases, the pH levels in the mouth also decrease. Teeth are less protected from decay-causing bacteria as a result.
Saliva physically flushes away plaque buildup. With dry mouth, plaque adheres to the teeth, making it more difficult to remove.
Periodontal disease is caused by poor oral hygiene, neglected dental treatment, dry mouth, and/or medications. Symptoms of gum disease include inflamed gums, bleeding gums, and high levels of dental plaque.
Mouth sores, ulcers, and canker sores also commonly result from dry mouth.
People with dry mouths are more prone to developing oral thrush (also known as candidiasis), an oral yeast infection.
Dry mouth, or xerostomia, can be caused by changes in the content or flow of your saliva. It may be an occasional symptom or a chronic sensation caused by an underlying medical condition. Various drugs, including prescription medications, can also cause dry mouth.
Xerostomia on its own isn’t life-threatening, but it can contribute to further problems, and in some cases, it can be an indicator of disease. If you experience persistent mouth dryness, see your doctor or dentist as soon as possible.
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