Dry mouth might seem more like a nagging annoyance than a symptom of a more serious health issue. But your body puts saliva in your mouth for a reason.
“The bacteria that cause tooth decay and periodontal disease thrive in a dry environment,” says Matt Messina, D.D.S., a Cleveland-based dentist.
While cavities stink, gum disease is your bigger concern. And some research suggests the systemic inflammation that results from periodontal disease may raise your risks for heart disease and stroke.
If that weren’t bad enough, your saliva is alkaline, and so helps keep the acids in the foods you eat from corroding your teeth, Dr. Messina says.
A sore throat, problems speaking or swallowing, and a burning sensation in your mouth are also unpleasant or painful symptoms of dry mouth, according to the ADA.
For all these reasons, dry mouth is a pernicious condition that can lead to a lot of other issues if left untreated.
Here, five common causes of dry mouth—and how you can fix it.
Dry mouth cause #1: Prescription drugs
Dr. Messina says there are well over 600 drugs for which dry mouth is a known side effect.
That includes uber popular categories like gastrointestinal meds, blood pressure drugs, and drugs used to treat psychiatric disorders, he adds.
Dry mouth cause #2: Aging
“As we get older, our salivary glands just don’t work as well as they should,” Dr. Messina says. “As a result, we make less saliva.”
Add dry mouth to the list of unwelcome effects of old age.
Dry mouth cause #3: Dehydration
Short-change your body in the H2O department, and it will struggle to make sufficient saliva.
“The average American is dehydrated to some degree, which can cause or exacerbate dry mouth,” Dr. Messina says.
Dry mouth cause #4:Breathing Issues
Problems with your sinuses or nasal septum—the barrier that divides your left nostril from your right—can make it hard for you to breathe through your nose, Dr. Messina says.
“And mouth breathing can certainly cause dry mouth,” he explains.
Dry mouth cause #5: Cancer Treatments
Both radiation and chemotherapy commonly lead to dry mouth, says Jeff Burgess, D.D.S., a former clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Dental Medicine.
There are also a few salivary gland-specific conditions that could cause extreme dry mouth, he says.
Dry mouth cause #6: Medical Conditions
Specific medical conditions can also lead to dry mouth. These include salivary gland diseases, Sjogren’s syndrome, HIV, and diabetes, according to MedlinePlus.
How to Treat Dry Mouth
Dr. Messina starts by advising people to drink more water.
That goes double if you tend to feel dried out after drinking alcohol, he says. (Tannic beverages like red wine can pull moisture from your mouth.)
Chewing sugar free gum can also help rev up your saliva production, Dr. Burgess says.
If water and Winterfresh aren’t cutting it, Dr. Burgess says there are a range of rinses and toothpastes that many dry mouth sufferers find effective.
“The stuff you can buy over the counter, like Biotene, can be helpful in stimulating the production of saliva, or replacing it,” he says.
Saliva-replacement lozenges or sprays also work for a lot of people, he adds.
That said, most of those work only during the day.
If you wake up every morning with a sore throat or other symptoms of dry mouth, Burgess says an OTC product called XyliMelts—a kind of leave-in disk you pop in your mouth when you hit the sack—can work wonders.
If prescription pills seem to be the cause of your dry mouth, Dr. Messina recommends speaking with your doctor about switching to another drug that treats the same issue without causing dry mouth (or trying one of these natural alternatives).
He also recommends adding a fluoride rinse to your daily dental care routine. “That can help prevent cavities or decay that results from your dry mouth,” he says.
Finally, for patients who produce little to no saliva due to cancer treatments or other underlying medical conditions, Burgess says a prescription drug called pilocarpene can help.
“It’s usually used when there is no identifiable saliva produced by the glands,” he says.
In any case, both he and Dr. Messina recommend talking with your dentist about your dry mouth issues. Your dentist can make informed recommendations based on a dental exam.
“The best treatment really depends on the individual,” Dr. Burgess says. “If dry mouth is bothering you, see someone about it.”
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