A Dry Run: What Causes Xerostomia & What You Can Do About It
Saliva, spit, whatever you call it – if you’re not making enough of it, your mouth may feel dry and just plain uncomfortable. Saliva has many purposes including serving as a natural mouthwash, helping us digest food, and preventing infections by managing levels of bacteria. Are you feeling particularly parched? There may be more to the story than just not being adequately hydrated. According to the American Academy of Oral Medicine, between up to 4 million people are affected by dry mouth, or xerostomia, with women being affected nine times more frequently than males. And it’s not just a dry mouth that characterizes xerostomia, other symptoms include cracked lips, bad breath, and sticky saliva. But what causes xerostomia – dry mouth – and what can you do about it?
A Noted Side Effect
As the field of medicine advances, potent prescriptions become available for everything from depression to allergies – and written plainly on their labels (and advertised over a backdrop of soothing images on their commercials) is a disclaimer for dry mouth. In fact, more than 400 medications claim dry mouth as a side effect, which is a result of the antiadrenergic/anticholinergic effect that inhibits certain glands in the body from producing watery secretions.
You, your doctor, and dentist will have to examine the pros and cons to determine if the benefits of these medications outweigh the risks. Prolonged dry mouth can lead to trouble swallowing and chewing food, tooth decay, loss of taste, mouth sores, and an oral yeast infection known as “thrush”. Along these same lines, cancer therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy (especially when targeted to the head and neck) can lead to temporary dry mouth. This is because radiation causes damage to the salivary glands.
Diseases and Illnesses
Systemic diseases are another common cause of xerostemia, and there is a laundry list of conditions that affect salivary production. One immune disorder called Sjögren’s syndrome is characterized by a parched mouth, accompanied by dry, itchy, and irritated eyes; and is often exhibited in those with ancillary immune disorders such as Lupus and Rheumatoid arthritis. Diabetics with poorly controlled blood sugar, and those with anemia, anorexia/bulimia, Parkinson’s Disease, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and Cystic Fibrosis may also produce less-than-satisfactory amounts of saliva.
Time and Lifestyle
The hands of time can generate a host of issues that didn’t affect people in their youth. Dry mouth is no exception; an increased need for medications and changes in the body’s ability to process said drugs can result in xerostemia. Poor nutrition, poorly fitting or unclean dentures, smoking, and alcohol use may all contribute to dry mouth as well.
In some cases, xerostemia is brought on by simple dehydration caused by extreme exercise, an excess of caffeine, increased sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, burns or blood loss. It’s crazy to think that in a world where most people are seen with water bottles in tow, up to 75% of Americans still suffer from chronic dehydration. Like oil to cars, water is the lubricant that hydrates our joints and organs; without it, we can’t thrive.
If you’re one of the millions of Americans suffering from dry mouth, it’s worth asking your dentist about modifications that can remedy this condition. Simple things, like keeping water nearby, sucking on ice cubes, and limiting your intake of alcohol, coffee, and tobacco products is an easy way to keep your mouth moist. There are also many over-the-counter and prescription medications targeted to those with xerostemia. From toothpastes and rinses, to over saliva substitutes, there’s no reason to live with the discomfort of dry mouth. Seek the advice of your dentist to discover what’s ailing you and what treatment is best. Dr. Steven R. Hagerman, DDS offers advanced dental care and cutting-edge services in general, cosmetic, and restorative dentistry. His practice is your one-stop shop for all things oral care. For more information, call (651) 646-2392 or schedule an appointment online.