Saliva is nature’s irrigation system for the mouth. Without it, food would remain stuck in between teeth, causing decay. Saliva is very important in keeping the mouth and teeth healthy. In fact, it plays a major role in the digestive process, beginning the breakdown of carbohydrates like starch while also lubricating the mouth and keeping it moist. Saliva also prevents infections and the onset of gum disease by controlling the formation of bacteria and fungi in the mouth.
Dry Mouth Syndrome (xerostomia) by definition is not an illness but an indicator of other possible illnesses or a side-effect of medicine used to treat other illnesses. Most people will have experienced dry mouth at some stage in their lives, especially at night.
It is a feeling of stickiness or dryness in the mouth. The tongue will invariably feel rough and dry while the back of the throat feels parched. Food is tricky to eat without an accompanying glass of fluids.
It is uncomfortable and for some, hugely frustrating. Crucially though, a chronic case of dry mouth poses a significant risk to your dental health and according to the NICDR (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research), greatly increases the likelihood of developing tooth decay.
Dry mouth has many causes – many of which can be pin-pointed to the salivary glands. These are 3 pairs of glands responsible for making saliva. When these glands are affected in one way or another – be it illness or medication, saliva production drops and dry mouth manifests.
1. Dehydration – When a person is dehydrated, they’ll tend to have a low-level of bodily fluids. Dehydration itself is caused by low fluid intake which usually comes as a result of illness.
2. Medication – Some forms of medication have a tendency to trigger the onset of dry mouth. According to patient.co.uk, these medications include:
“…tricyclic antidepressants, antihistamines, antimuscarinic medicines, some anti-epileptic medicines, some antipsychotics, beta-blockers and ‘water tablets’ (diuretics).”
Patient.co.uk, Dry Mouth
These medications are known to affect the salivary glands, thereby reducing the amount of saliva they make, causing dry mouth.
3. Breathing through the mouth – Perhaps the most common cause of dry mouth is breathing through the mouth. Some people do it in their sleep while some people do it all the time. This can also be caused by a blocked nose or anxiety. Interestingly, mouth breathing causes many other dental and craniofacial complications.
4. Cancer treatment (Radiotherapy & Chemotherapy) – Aggressive cancer treatment can cause permanent damage to the salivary glands resulting in dry mouth.
5. Underlying medical conditions – Conditions such as Sjogren’s Syndrome or other infections can also result in dry mouth.
6. Nerve damage – Surgery or injury to the head or neck can damage nerves which can cause dry mouth.
Relieving dry mouth
In some circumstances, dry mouth is fairly easy to resolve. In other cases, especially those related to other medical conditions or treatment, it’s far trickier.
1. Hydration – An admittedly obvious approach to relieving dry mouth is simply staying hydrated. Frequent sips of water or chewing on an ice cube can relieve dry mouth for some.
2. Chewing gum – Gum stimulates saliva production and can also relieve dry mouth. Gum with xylitol is also good for dental health with studies showing that it prevents tooth decay.
3. Nose breathing – Avoid breathing through the mouth to prevent dryness in the mouth.
4. Artificial Saliva – Gels and mouth sprays that act as artificial saliva can be bought over the counter from your nearest pharmacy.
5. Alternative solutions – When all the available solutions seem ineffective, it could be worth exploring more left-field choices. This article from howstuffworks lists some home remedies for dry mouth. Alternatives include various spices like fennel and cayenne pepper, sugar (not a great idea for your dental wellbeing), celery and parsley to name but a few.
6. Drugs – There are drugs (i.e Salagen) available that can stimulate the salivary glands and trigger the production of saliva. That said, these drugs can have side effects which are quite unpleasant.
Dry mouth sufferers have an added need to practice good dental hygiene as the condition can lead to tooth decay. They need to floss and brush their teeth daily in order to keep them clean. Regular water intake is also necessary to keep the mouth as moist as possible. Ultimately, if your dry mouth persists and you have yet to visit your dentist, then we suggest you do so and get advice from a trained medical professional.