Dry mouth, or xerostomia, is a condition wherein the mouth does not produce adequate saliva to keep the mouth wet and moisturized. Dry mouth is a common condition among older people, but may also be caused by stress, smoking, alcoholism, certain medications, cancer treatment, autoimmune disorders, or other underlying conditions.
Everybody usually experiences temporary dry mouth at some point, mostly as a result of dehydration after an exercise or not drinking enough water throughout the day; but the condition can also be a constant problem for some. If left untreated, constant dry mouth can lead to more serious dental problems.
Digestion actually begins in the mouth, and saliva is a critical element in this first stage of the digestive process. Additionally, adequate saliva production is essential for maintaining healthy teeth, as saliva neutralizes harmful acids and washes away bacteria that build up in the mouth when we eat; it also rinses away leftover food particles, which can contribute to the growth of bacteria and increase in acids in the mouth. Saliva, therefore, acts as a natural defense against bad breath, plaque, tooth decay, and gum disease.
Particularly after eating dry and salty foods, drinking coffee or alcohol, or smoking, insufficient saliva in the mouth makes our teeth prone to plaque build-up and decay. Bacterial growth becomes uncontrolled, and acids in the mouth also accumulate. One feeds the other, and vice versa. So recurring/constant dry mouth, when left untreated, inevitably leads to damaged teeth and tooth loss. A report made by The Oral Cancer Foundation states that dry mouth is the cause of tooth decay in 30% of cases among the elderly.
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), untreated dry mouth also often lead to other oral conditions, including burning mouth syndrome and oral thrush, which is a type of candidiasis. Those who produce insufficient saliva also experience loss of taste, sore throat, difficulty in chewing and swallowing, dry nasal passages, hoarseness, difficulty in wearing dentures, and difficulty speaking.
If you have been experiencing dry mouth for more than a week, it is important that you visit your dentist right away. Treatment may include using a special oral rinse to increase saliva production and/or help decrease oral bacteria; and/or fluoride treatments or sealants to protect against tooth decay. Your dentist may also recommend switching to a different medication, or getting acupuncture treatment – an option recommended by the Academy of General Dentistry.
The following practices will also help treat xerostomia and improve dental health:
- Proper oral hygiene to prevent plaque build-up and tooth decay.
- Drinking plenty of water throughout the day which boosts saliva production and also ensures that food particles are washed away after eating which, in turn, prevents the growth of bacteria and production of acids in the mouth.
- Chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on mints also stimulates saliva production. The best option are products that contain xylitol which is known to prevent tooth cavities.
- As much as possible, avoid drinks with caffeine and drinks that are high in sugar, as these promote bacterial growth and leave behind harmful acids.
- Visit your dentist regularly.
Constant/recurring dry mouth should not be ignored, as it may be a symptom of another, more serious problem or it can cause long-term oral health issues. Book an appointment with your dentist right away if you’ve had dry mouth for more than a week.