Today, I want to discuss a condition that might not sound like a very big deal at first. I’m talking about Xerostomia, more commonly known as dry mouth. Many people believe dry mouth is just one of those bothersome consequences of aging, like an aching back or declining vision.
In truth, there are some very specific reasons for experiencing dry mouth that you need to know about.
Before I dispel the myths surrounding dry mouth, let me explain why you should care about this important health topic. The cause of dry mouth is simply an inadequate supply of saliva. Saliva not only begins the digestion process, but also cleanses the mouth. The soft tissue in your mouth is highly sensitive to infection and likely to become inflamed without the cleansing, lubricating effects of saliva. When this happens, harmful organisms have a chance to gain a foothold and grow.
If dry mouth is left untreated, here are some of the problems that could arise:
– Oral yeast infections
– Widespread tooth decay
– A burning sensation
– Gum disease
– Bad breath
Isn’t This a Dental Problem?
As you’ve been reading this, you may have stopped and wondered, “What does this guy know about dry mouth? He’s not a dentist.” It’s true that I don’t moonlight in the dental field, but I’ve had to work with many patients who were suffering from dry mouth.
Here’s something you may be surprised to learn: the leading cause of dry mouth is prescription medications. In fact, over 400 drugs name dry mouth as a possible side effect.
Some of the common ones are antihistamines, decongestants, and aspirin taken daily, diuretics, antidepressants and antihypertensive. That’s quite a list! The reason dry mouth is often associated with aging is that we are more likely to start taking one or more of these drugs the older we get.
Because most of those drugs will be prescribed by internists and general physicians, dry mouth is definitely a problem that goes beyond the dentist’s chair. Of course, drugs are not the sole culprit when it comes to dry mouth.
Certain medical conditions can cause a reduction in saliva production, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, salivary gland disease and Sjogren’s Syndrome. The radiation used to treat cancers of the neck and head may also have an effect on your ability to produce adequate saliva.
Kiss Dry Mouth Goodbye
The first step in your plan for dealing with dry mouth is to consult with your doctor. Discuss all the medications you may be using and determine what is causing the dry mouth. Armed with this knowledge, you and your doctor can find a way to alleviate it.
If dry mouth is something you can’t avoid, taking good care of yourself is the best way to make yourself more comfortable and avoid complications. Here are some steps to take:
1) Drink more fluids and take frequent sips of water
2) Try artificial saliva products
3) Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva production
4) Use alcohol-free mouth rinses
5) Limit intake of caffeinated, alcoholic and carbonated drinks, which can cause further dryness
6) Brush your teeth, floss regularly and use oral devices to clean where your toothbrush may not reach
7) See your dentist regularly
If you are saying to yourself, “My mouth was dry last week! What if I’m in serious trouble?” don’t worry just yet. First, determine whether your dry mouth is something you’ve been experiencing regularly for a prolonged period, or an isolated condition that disappeared after a few days.
We all may experience dry mouth from time to time due to either stress or anxiety. If you had a bad cold and took decongestants for several days, that may be another explanation. Stopping the medication should resolve your symptoms of dry mouth.
I think I’ve done a good job of doing away with the myths connected to this common, but misunderstood condition. Clearly, dry mouth is not something you have to suffer through. There are plenty of ways to get help from your doctors and to care for your own health. As always, the more you know, the happier and healthier you’ll be!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.