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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. It is a common problem among older adults, and, if left untreated, can result in extensive damage to your teeth. 

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. Saliva helps digest and swallow food, cuts bacteria levels in the mouth, and adds minerals that help renew the surface of the teeth.

Symptoms

People with dry mouth may have a dry feeling in the throat, mouth sores, difficulty swallowing, 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 dentist may recommend an antibacterial mouthrinse to reduce bacteria that cause cavities or a baking soda mouthrinse (two teaspoons of baking soda to 12 ounces of water) to reduce plaque acidity. Your health care provider 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.

  • Use a humidifier 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 health care provider to determine the cause of your dry mouth.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eakle, W. Stephan, DDS
Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Last Review Date: 3/19/2013
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