Dry Mouth: It's a Warning Sign

A dry mouth may not sound like a health threat. But that parched feeling can cause tooth decay and gum trouble, as well as discomfort when eating or speaking.

Dry mouth occurs when the glands in the mouth that make saliva don't function properly.

Common medications such as blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, drugs to treat urinary incontinence and tranquilizers can dry out your mouth. So can autoimmune disorders, chemotherapy for cancer treatment, or radiation therapy of the head and neck.

Protective saliva

Saliva is the best defense against gum disease and tooth decay other than diet and brushing, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Saliva helps digest and swallow food, cuts bacteria levels in the mouth and adds minerals that help renew the surface of the aid teeth.

"All the nutrients that the surface enamel needs to stay healthy -- calcium, phosphate -- all come from the saliva," says Athena S. Papas, D.M.D., Ph.D., a dental professor at Tufts University.

"Every time you eat something with sugar in it, the bacteria in your mouth produce acid," she says. That can make teeth lose calcium and phosphate. "Your saliva has calcium and phosphate in it," she adds, so it helps restore the etched surface of the enamel.


People with dry mouth may have a dry feeling in the throat, mouth sores, cracked lips and a dry, rough tongue.

To ease the problem:

  • Tell your dentist about all medications you take and if you have symptoms of mouth dryness. If you have a dry mouth with increased tooth decay, your dentist may apply fluoride varnish or gel, prescribe a special fluoride gel, toothpaste or rinse, and ask to see you more often. Your doctor can offer medications that help your body make saliva.

  • Ease mouth dryness with moisture. Sip water often, suck sugarless candy or ice chips, chew sugarless gum or try over-the-counter artificial saliva products.

  • Avoid foods, drinks and other items that dry your mouth. Among them: alcohol (even in mouthwash), salty or spicy foods, caffeine and tobacco.

  • Limit sugar intake and brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush right after eating anything with sugar. "Without saliva, the acid stays in your mouth a long time," says Dr. Papas. Floss your teeth gently every day.

  • Use a humidifier at night, when you sleep.

Drugs linked to dry mouth

  • Antidepressants

  • Antihistamines

  • Decongestants

  • High blood pressure drugs

  • Pain relievers

  • Tranquilizers

  • Diuretics

  • Appetite suppressants

Treatment for dry mouth depends of the cause of the condition. Talk with your doctor to determine the cause of your dry mouth.


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