February 3, 2010

Dry Mouth: Symptoms, Causes, and Cures

Dry mouth or xerostomia is a common health condition in which a person experiences unusual and problematic dryness in the mouth. This may or may not be linked to a lack of saliva. The dry feeling can take the joy out of eating and drinking, and it can pose a threat to teeth.

Saliva helps keep mouths clean. It helps keep bacteria in control, which can put a stop to tooth decay, gum disease, and infections in the mouth. When not enough saliva is produced, cavities and halitosis or bad breath may follow.

Along with helping people to keep their mouths clean, saliva aids the sense of taste. It also moistens the mouth to help make it easier to swallow, and it helps in the process of digestion.


In addition to a dry feeling in the mouth, some common symptoms of dry mouth include:

  • A sticky feeling in the mouth or throat and thick or stringy saliva
  • Sores, cracked lips, or split skin around the mouth
  • Difficulty speaking and eating or a distorted sense of taste
  • Increased plaque, tooth decay, fungal infection, or gum disease
  • A tingling or burning feeling on the tongue or in the mouth
  • Frequent thirst, hoarseness, a sore throat, or dry sinuses


In addition to not producing enough saliva, dry mouth may be caused or aggravated by excessive breathing through the mouth or by snoring. While physical trauma to the salivary glands, nerves, or ducts can cause dry mouth, the condition can be brought on by a variety of factors. These include age, nerve damage, other health conditions, meds and medical treatments, smoking, drinking alcohol, or simply a lack of sufficient fluids.

Dry mouth is a common side effect of dozens of meds, including both prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Controlled substances can also contribute to dry mouth. These include cannabis, heroin, and methamphetamines.

Some health conditions have dry mouth as a side effect. For example, people with nerve damage in the head or neck area may get dry mouth. People with any of the following may experience dry mouth as well: anemia, anxiety disorders, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, depression, HIV/AIDS, hypertension, mumps, or stroke.

Additionally, any health condition that produces dehydration can lead to dry mouth. Examples include diarrhea, vomiting, loss of blood, fever, and extreme sweating.

Dry mouth may be a side effect of a medical treatment. Chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer can injure the salivary glands and restrict saliva production, for example.

The elderly are more likely to get dry mouth, which may be because they use more meds that can cause dry mouth as a side effect. In addition, as people age, they are more prone to get other health conditions or have medical treatments that may have dry mouth as a side effect.

A physical exam by a doctor or dentist may not be able to diagnose xerostomia. Blood tests or other measures may be used to confirm a diagnosis and to help pin down the cause.


While there are many things that may cause dry mouth, there are also a number of ways to deal with those causes. The focus of treatment is on finding the cause or causes and correcting or removing them. This may be as simple as changing the dose of a med that causes dry mouth as a side effect or prescribing an alternate drug, if one is available.

In some cases, an over-the-counter saliva substitute or drugs that promote saliva production may be used. Oral rinses that help restore moisture to the mouth may also be prescribed. For those who experience dry mouth due to drug side effects, a medicated rinse may help reduce dry mouth and related symptoms. In the worst cases, to help prevent tooth decay, dentists may fit patients with special mouth guards.

Some non-medical ways that often help relieve dry mouth include breathing through the nose rather than the mouth, chewing sugar-free gum or sucking sugar-free candy, and drinking plenty of water. A room vaporizer may also be used to add moisture to the air and support better hydration.

If you notice symptoms related to xerostomia or dry mouth, visit your dentist or doctor.