Dry Mouth Syndrome: Signs, Symptoms, Causes and Treatments for Dry Mouth


Dry mouth syndrome, also known as xerostomia, is a dry, uncomfortable feeling in your mouth that results from a decrease in the amount of your saliva. Dry mouth syndrome can be temporary or a chronic problem.

One or more factors can cause your salivary glands to function improperly and produce a less saliva than normal:

  • Medications (prescription and over-the-counter).
  • Medical conditions (Sjögren's Syndrome, diabetes, stroke or others).
  • Emotional stress and anxiety.

The exact number of people suffering from dry mouth syndrome is unknown; however, everyone experiences it to some extent at one time or another. Dry mouth syndrome is more likely to occur among older adults, but it can affect a person of any age.

Signs and Symptoms of Dry Mouth Syndrome

A number of symptoms are commonly attributed to dry mouth syndrome, each of which can be classified as mild, moderate or severe. If you experience any of the following symptoms on an ongoing basis, you should talk to your dentist about xerostomia.

Signs and symptoms of dry mouth syndrome include, but are not limited to:

  • A dry, sticky feeling in the mouth or throat
  • Insufficient saliva
  • Saliva that feels thick or is stringy
  • A rough, dry tongue
  • Sore throat
  • Bad breath
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing or talking
  • Signs of dryness, such as cracked lips, sores or split skin at corners of mouth
  • A burning sensation in the mouth (burning tongue)
  • Altered sense of taste
  • An infection in the mouth

Causes of Dry Mouth Syndrome

Medications are a common contributor to dry mouth syndrome. For example, dry mouth syndrome is a side effect of more than 400 prescription and over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines and decongestants that are used to treat allergies and colds, antidepressants used to treat depression, and pain killers and diuretics.

Even high blood pressure medications, muscle relaxants and medications for Parkinson's disease may cause dry mouth.

Certain cancer therapies – including chemotherapy and especially radiation treatments near the salivary glands in the head and neck region – can cause dry mouth syndrome by reducing the amount of saliva production.

For these reasons it is important that you tell your dentist about all the medications you are taking, as well as any other treatments you receive, because they could contribute to dry mouth or affect your oral health in other ways. It is ironic to think that something designed to help you could be causing or contributing to your dry mouth syndrome, but it has proven to be a common problem.

Various medical conditions may contribute to or cause dry mouth syndrome, so it is important that your dentist knows your complete medical history. This includes Sjögren's Syndrome (a chronic autoimmune disease affecting the moisture-producing glands, leading to dry eyes and dry mouth ), diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, stroke and other conditions.

If you are under stress or feeling anxious, you may experience dry mouth syndrome. Dry mouth symptoms can also occur as a result of hormone changes from pregnancy or menopause, as well as snoring or breathing with an open mouth.

Consequences of Dry Mouth Syndrome: Why Saliva Is Important

Saliva is approximately 99 percent water, with its remaining components consisting of lubricants that help fight infection, as well as enzymes and proteins that help you digest food. Healthy adults produce an estimated three pints of saliva a day.

Not surprisingly, dry mouth syndrome does more than leave your mouth feeling dry and uncomfortable. Insufficient saliva causes the soft tissues of the mouth to become irritated, making them inflamed and more susceptible to infection. Your tongue may feel sensitive (burning tongue syndrome).

Also, without saliva to wash away food debris and neutralize the acids produced by plaque, your teeth are more susceptible to dental cavities and tooth decay.

What's more, without the lubricating effect of saliva, you may find it difficult to swallow, talk and chew your food. You may be less able to taste foods, as well. Your throat may be sore and hoarse, and your nasal passages may become dry.

If you have any symptoms of dry mouth syndrome, talk to your dentist.

Wetting Your Whistle Again: Dry Mouth Syndrome Treatments

Once you have told your dentist about your dry mouth symptoms, he or she will examine your mouth for possible complications from dry mouth (cavities, irritation, infection), as well as ask you questions about the symptoms and any medications you are taking. Depending on the severity, he or she may refer you to a specialist, such as a periodontist.

There are a number of simple dry mouth syndrome treatments that are designed to restore moisture to your mouth. Your dentist may recommend:

  • Sugar-free candy, sugar-free gum or gum specially made to stimulate saliva flow.
  • Specially formulated oral rinses.
  • Artificial saliva (saliva substitute).
  • More fluid intake (frequent sips of water, sucking ice chips).
  • Oral moisturizers (sprays or gels).
  • Oral prescription medications to induce saliva production.

The American Dental Association (ADA) also suggests that people with dry mouth avoid tobacco and limit their consumption of carbonated beverages or those containing caffeine or alcohol. Also, because dry mouth increases the likelihood of tooth decay, the ADA recommends twice-daily tooth brushing, using floss or interdental cleaners once a day, and seeing your dentist for regular checkups.

Alternative approaches to treating dry mouth symptoms that scientists are currently investigating include acupuncture, nerve stimulation, guided tissue regeneration and gene transfer/DNA technology. These treatment options might be useful in the future for very severe cases of xerostomia.


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