Dry Mouth

What many consider a simple annoyance is actually a serious oral health problem.  Dry mouth affects millions of Americans and leads to an increased risk for dental diseases.  It is not something that you should ignore.  This article will explain the causes, risks and solutions to severe dry mouth.

What Causes Dry Mouth?

Dry mouth can have several different causes.  The scientific term for persistent dry mouth is xerostomia.  They are the same phenomenon, so don’t let the different terminology confuse you.  Dry mouth can result from autoimmune diseases or radiation treatment to the head and/or neck.  The most common cause, though, is prescription medications.

Prescription medications used to control health problems like high blood pressure, depression, and seasonal allergies lead to dry mouth as a side effect.  In fact, almost every prescription medication has the risk of dry mouth as a side effect (excluding a class of drugs for congestive heart failure).  The effect of dry mouth becomes much worse when a patient takes a combination of these drugs.  Due to the prevalence of people taking multiple prescription medications daily, dry mouth has become a serious oral health concern.

An autoimmune disease, known as Sjögren’s Syndrome, is another cause of serious dry mouth.  An autoimmune condition means that the body’s immune system is attacking certain parts of the body, and in Sjögren’s Syndrome, it attacks the salivary and tear glands.  Patients who suffer from Sjögren’s have severe dry mouth and dry eyes.

Patients who have undergone treatment for a head or neck cancer may have received radiation to these areas.  If the radiation was near the main salivary glands, damage is very likely.  Patients with past radiation treatment often have severe dry mouth because their salivary glands can no longer produce an adequate amount of saliva.

Why is Dry Mouth Such a Serious Problem?

In order to understand why dry mouth is so bad, you have to understand why saliva is so good!  First, we will dive into the role of saliva, and then explain the risks that a lack of saliva poses to the oral environment.

The Role of Saliva

Saliva is more than just spit.  Saliva is an important part of everything in the oral cavity.  We need saliva to help us swallow our food.  Saliva contains enzymes that begin the digestion process.  It acts as an important lubricant to protect against biting the lips, cheeks, and tongue.

There are other important qualities of saliva that help prevent dental diseases like cavities and gum disease.  Saliva actually breaks down the cell walls and inhibits growth of some of the bacteria in the mouth.  It has an alkaline pH, so it neutralizes and counteracts the acids produced by cavity-causing bacteria.  It contains important minerals for re-hardening the tooth structure softened by those same acids.

When Saliva is Missing

Now that you understand all of the important functions of saliva, you can easily correlate them to the risks associated with a lack of saliva.  When you do not have an adequate flow of saliva, the mouth becomes an acidic, bacteria-filled, accident-prone environment.

A dry mouth leads to an increased risk for cavities because the acidic environment makes it easier for the bacteria to weaken enamel.  There is also no defense against the softening because you don’t have the calcium and phosphate minerals in saliva to strengthen the teeth.

Patients with dry mouth also have a high risk for gingivitis and progressing gum disease.  In a dry mouth, dental plaque has a stickier consistency, which makes it more difficult to remove from the teeth.  Even really great brushers and flossers can struggle to remove all of the dental plaque when their mouths are dry.

We also see a high incidence of mouth sores, injuries and ulcers in patients with dry mouth.  Without the lubrication that saliva provides, the lips, cheeks and tongue do not glide smoothly over the teeth and instead, get in the way of normal function.

What Can I Do to Fight Dry Mouth?

If you suffer from dry mouth, there are some important steps you should take to reduce the risk of dental problems.  Don’t wait until you have a dental problem.  Work with your dentist to focus on prevention as soon as possible.

Support Good Hydration

Your salivary glands cannot make saliva without water.  If your body is dehydrated, your mouth is more likely to be dry.  In order to support good hydration, you should make sure to drink plenty of water.  You should also avoid drinking beverages that lead to dehydration.  This includes caffeine, alcohol, and drinks that are high in sugar.

Talk to Your Doctor about Adjusting Your Prescriptions

The side effect of dry mouth is dose-dependent.  You can speak with your doctor about lowering your dosages or offering alternative solutions to a medication that causes dry mouth.  Ask if you can avoid multiple prescription medications by changing diet or other habits.

Encourage Saliva Production

There are ways to stimulate saliva production.  The best salivary stimulants involve chewing because the chewing motion tells the brain that you are getting ready to swallow food.  This makes the brain signal to the salivary glands to increase their production.  For this reason, the best salivary stimulant is chewing sugar-free gum.

Obviously, you can’t chew gum in your sleep, so another solution is necessary.  During sleep, the body naturally slows saliva production (this is so you don’t choke in your sleep).  However, for those who suffer from dry mouth, a further reduction in flow can make things quite uncomfortable.  For nighttime salivary stimulation, we recommend Xylimelts, an over-the-counter product that you can buy in stores and online.  These small patches stick to the roof of the mouth and release xylitol (a natural sweetener that does not cause cavities) throughout the night.  The sweet flavor in your mouth triggers saliva release.  Without the chewing motion, it is a significantly lower amount of saliva, but it is usually plenty for the needed overnight effect.

Follow Your Dentist’s Recommendations for Preventing Dental Disease

Because a dry mouth places you at a higher risk for dental diseases, you have to be more aggressive in your prevention.  Patients with a dry mouth should have professional fluoride treatments during their teeth cleanings to strengthen the enamel against those bacterial acid attacks.  Some dentists will prescribe a specific toothpaste for you to use to fight cavities.

Due to the high risk for gum disease, patients with dry mouth may need more frequent professional teeth cleanings.  For example, seeing your dental hygienist every three months instead of six could greatly reduce your plaque and tartar buildup and lower the risk for gum disease.

More Questions about Dry Mouth?

Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location today to schedule a consultation with one of our dental experts.  We can answer any questions you have about dry mouth and give you specific recommendations based on your current situation.