Xerostomia, more commonly known as dry mouth, is not a disease in itself. Rather, it is a symptom of many other diseases and conditions. These conditions cause saliva production to decrease or stop.Saliva moistens your mouth and helps you to swallow and taste food. It helps in fighting cavities by washing away food and plaque from the teeth. It also helps to neutralize acids in the mouth that harm tooth enamel.
If you have less saliva in your mouth, your teeth and gums are at increased risk of tooth decay. People with xerostomia also are more likely to get illnesses that affect the soft tissues of the mouth, such as yeast infections (thrush). In addition, your diet may be affected because you cannot taste food as you normally would. People with complete dentures who develop xerostomia also may notice that their dentures lose some of their suction. They may feel loose in the mouth.
Xerostomia may occur for several reasons. Some common causes include:
- A side effect of medicine — Hundreds of drugs can cause dry mouth. These include pain relievers and medicines for depression, cold symptoms, muscle spasms and allergies. Medicines are the most common cause of xerostomia. Older people often take many medicines, including those most likely to cause dry mouth. For this reason, they have an especially high rate of dry mouth.
- A complication of diseases and infections — Several diseases are associated with dry mouth. They include diabetes, anemia, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and HIV infection. Xerostomia also occurs with Sjogren’s syndrome. In this disease, the body’s antibodies attack the salivary and tear glands. Some viral infections, such as mumps, also affect saliva production and cause xerostomia.
- Dehydration — Any condition that leads to loss of body fluids can also cause xerostomia. These conditions include fever, excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, blood loss or loss of water through the skin after a burn.
- Radiation therapy — Xerostomia is a common side effect of radiation therapy to treat cancers in the head and neck.
- Surgical removal of the salivary glands — If a mass develops in a salivary gland, surgical removal of the gland may be recommended.
Although xerostomia is a symptom, it often occurs along with other symptoms. These may include:
- Frequent thirst
- Burning or tingling sensation, especially on the tongue
- Red, raw tongue
- Sores in mouth or at corners of lips
- Difficulty swallowing
- Problems with taste
- Sore throat and hoarseness
- Bad breath
- Problems with speech
- Dry nasal passages
- Dry, cracked lips
- Increase in dental problems, such as cavities and periodontal disease
- Difficulty wearing dentures
- Repeated yeast infections in the mouth
- Women’s lipstick may stick to their front teeth
Xerostomia is a symptom, not a disease. Tell your dentist and hygienist about your dry mouth. Your dentist will ask you about your medical history and your symptoms. He or she will ask about any drugs you are taking. This includes prescription, nonprescription and herbal remedies. The dentist also will examine your mouth. He or she will assess the flow of saliva and look for cracks, sores, and signs of cavities and gum disease.
The symptoms of xerostomia can be treated. However, the condition often remains a problem as long as its cause (medicine, illness, dehydration) remains. If the salivary glands have been removed or destroyed, the condition is permanent. Radiation therapy to treat cancer in the head or neck also may permanently affect how well the salivary glands can produce saliva.
To prevent dry mouth, avoid things that cause it, if possible. For example, if dry mouth is related to a medicine, your physician may be able to prescribe a drug that causes less dryness. Do not overuse cold medicines and antihistamines. You also can take steps to prevent or manage the symptoms of dry mouth.
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