Almost all of us have had a dry mouth at one time or another. Your mouth can feel bone dry when you're nervous about something, like giving a speech. It can feel that way when you have a cold and can't breathe through your nose.
Dry mouth is a common problem that may seem like little more than a nuisance. But if you have dry mouth on a long-term basis, it can be a real problem. The American Dental Association, or ADA, says it can seriously damage your teeth.
Dry mouth is when the salivary glands in your mouth don't make enough saliva. Saliva is a natural mouth cleanser that helps wash away bits of food. It also helps control the growth of germs that lead to tooth decay. Without enough saliva, harmful germs can multiply quickly in your mouth.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research lists these as symptoms of dry mouth:
- a sticky, dry feeling
- trouble chewing, swallowing, or tasting
- a burning sensation
- a dry feeling in your throat
- cracked lips
- a dry tongue
- mouth sores
- an infection in the mouth
Causes of dry mouth
According to the ADA, dry mouth is a symptom rather than an illness itself. Here are some of the things that cause dry mouth:
As the experts at MayoClinic.com explain, hundreds of medicines can lead to dry mouth. These are the types most likely to cause the problem:
- medicines used to treat depression and anxiety
- antihistamines for allergies and colds
- decongestants for allergies and colds
- high blood pressure medicine
- medicines for diarrhea
- muscle relaxants
- medicines for urinary incontinence
- Parkinson's disease medicines
If you have dry mouth, check your medicine cabinet for these kinds of medicines. Then, talk with your doctor or dentist so see what you can do. He or she may suggest a different medicine that doesn't cause dry mouth.
Aging doesn't cause dry mouth on its own. But, older people are more likely to be taking medicines that can cause it. They are also more likely to have other health conditions that can lead to dry mouth.
An injury or surgery that damages nerves in your head and neck may result in dry mouth.
Other health conditions
The ADA says dry mouth may result from radiation treatment for head and neck cancers. It may also be caused by a disease of the salivary glands. Emotional stress and diseases such as diabetes and Sjogren's syndrome may bring it on. Changes in hormones due to pregnancy and menopause may cause it, too.
Winter can make dry mouth worse.
An article by Krystal Simpson on Livestrong.com, "Dry Mouth in the Winter," offered these insights. One of the triggers for thirst in warmer temperatures is fluid loss due to sweat.
It drives us to drink more fluids. In the winter, however, we don't sweat as much. So we may not drink enough fluid.
As Robert Kenefick, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, said, "People just don't feel as thirsty when the weather is cold. When they don't feel thirsty, they don't drink as much and this can cause dehydration." Dehydration occurs when your body doesn't have enough fluid. It is one of the causes of dry mouth.
Another problem is winter colds. When your nose is stuffed up, you have to breathe through your mouth. That can cause dry mouth or make it worse.
And if you take a decongestant to clear your nose, it can cause dry mouth, too.
In addition, winter air is often low in humidity. When the heat is on in your home and office, it can dry out your mouth even more.
Beware of tooth decay due to dry mouth
If you have dry mouth, you need to follow good oral hygiene habits carefully. WebMD offers these tips:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day. It's even better to brush after every meal and before bedtime.
- Floss your teeth every day.
- Use a tooth paste that has fluoride.
- Visit your dentist for a checkup and cleaning at least twice a year. Your dentist may recommend a fluoride rinse or gel to help keep your teeth healthy.
Talk with your doctor or dentist.
If dry mouth is caused by a medical condition that can be treated, your doctor or dentist may be able to help. If it's brought on by a medicine, your dentist or doctor may change the medicine or the dose. But sometimes, a medical condition that can't be treated causes dry mouth. If so, treatment focuses on increasing saliva flow.
Increasing the flow of saliva can relieve dry mouth.
Artificial saliva products can be a big help to people with dry mouth. They are available over-the-counter in a rinse or spray or your healthcare provider can write you a prescription. Toothpastes, mouthwashes, and gels are also available. Ask your doctor or dentist about them.
Scientists are also looking for new ways to treat dry mouth. One is to repair salivary glands that have been damaged. Another is an artificial gland that can be placed in the body.
Lifestyle and home remedies can be very helpful.
If the cause of the problem can't be found or can't be cured, follow these tips from the Mayo Clinic. They can make a big difference in dry mouth symptoms.
- Chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free hard candies.
- Limit your caffeine. It can make your mouth drier.
- Avoid sugary or acidic foods and candies. They increase the risk of tooth decay.
- Brush with a fluoride toothpaste. Ask your dentist if you might benefit from prescription toothpaste.
- Use a fluoride rinse or brush-on fluoride gel before bedtime.
- Don't use a mouthwash that has alcohol. It can be drying.
- Stop all tobacco use if you smoke or chew tobacco.
- Sip water or suck ice chips during the day to moisten your mouth. Drink water during meals to aid chewing and swallowing.
- Try over-the-counter saliva substitutes your dentist recommends. Avoid using over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants. They can make your symptoms worse.
- Breathe through you nose, not your mouth.
- Add moisture to the air at night with a room humidifier.
Don't let dry mouth spoil your smile. Taking steps to treat it now can help you keep your teeth and mouth healthy.