Up to a third of the American population reports having experienced symptoms associated with the occasional bout of dry mouth – feeling thirsty or dehydrated cracked lips and even bad breath. These symptoms are usually remedied by increasing water intake and a quick refresher with a toothbrush. However, many people experience chronic dry mouth conditions, and for these patients, a cure goes beyond just drinking more water.
Xerostomia, or dry mouth, occurs when there is a decrease in saliva production in the mouth. On average, most people produce almost a quart of saliva per day. Saliva is produced by the salivary glands and is composed of 99 percent water. The remaining percent is made up of electrolytes, proteins, minerals, and enzymes. Saliva also serves as the body’s first line of defense against bacteria, aids in the ability to perform oral functions like chewing and swallowing and is very important to digestion.
Dry mouth can occasionally happen as a result of salivary gland injury or dysfunction, dehydration, diet or the use of medications like antihistamines, antidepressants, and medications used to treat high blood pressure. It can also occur chronically as a result of getting older, smoking and tobacco use, anxiety, and stress, sleep apnea, diseases like diabetes and cancer treatments. When dry mouth persists for month or years, it can result in periodontal disease; tooth loss and tooth decay, and also impact the patient’s total health.
Chronic dry mouth symptoms include dryness and a feeling of burning in the mouth, tongue, lips and throat, sticky, thick saliva, cracks and sores in the mouth, tongue and lips and bad breath. Patients with chronic dry mouth also report problems chewing and swallowing, problems speaking and even issues digesting food properly. As a result, many sufferers modify their diets and may even suffer from weight loss and eventually become malnourish as a result of their condition. Additionally, patients with chronic dry mouth often have issues with dentures rubbing painfully against their gums, more frequent oral infections – both bacterial and fungal, as in the case of oral thrush.
Lack of saliva can also impact teeth remineralization. Calcium and phosphate, two minerals found in saliva are critical the protection of teeth against tooth decay. When saliva is not present, the teeth can become demineralized and weaken. Saliva also distributes fluoride, a mineral that is critical for preventing tooth decay. Additionally, saliva contains antibacterial components that fight off bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria cause gingivitis and other periodontal diseases. Saliva also keeps the teeth and other mouth structures from drying out and helps to maintain the pH balance of the mouth.
Because chronic dry mouth has so many health complications, it is a condition that patients should discuss with their dentists. Dr. James Erpenbach, D.D.S., a Knoxville, Tennessee, dentist explains treatment options for xerostomia. "Once the cause of dry mouth is identified, the patient can be properly treated," he says. Treatments may include diet modifications, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, and increasing frequency of dental cleanings and preventative treatments. Antibacterial agents can also be applied topically to protect the teeth and gums. Erpenbach also explains self-care treatments available to patients but cautions dry mouth should still be discussed with a dental professional. "There are also over the counter products available that serve as a substitute for saliva, and can help correct some of the side effects of the condition, but dry mouth is something your dentist should know about."
Other ways to improve chronic dry mouth is increased water intake, sipping water more frequently or allowing ice to melt in the mouth, using prescription toothpastes, changing medications and using fluoride rinses.