Dry mouth, known medically as xerostomia, is the abnormal
reduction of saliva due to medication, disease, or medical therapy.
Dry mouth due to the lack of saliva can be a serious medical
problem. Decreased salivation can make swallowing difficult, can
decrease taste sensation, and can promote tooth decay.
3. Causes and symptoms
Dry mouth, resulting from thickened or reduced salvia flow, can
be caused by a number of factors: medications, both prescription and
over-the-counter; systemic diseases, such as anemia or diabetes,
manifestations of Sjögren's syndrome (as rheumatoid arthritis,
lupus, chronic hardening and thickening of the skin, or chronic and
progressive inflammation of sketal muscles); infections of the
salivary glands; blockage of the salivary ducts caused by stones or
tumors forming in the ducts through which the saliva passes;
dehydration; medical therapies, such as local surgery or radiation;
secretion reduction normally involved in the aging proces; and
The diagnosis of dry mouth is not difficult. The patient will
state that his or her saliva is very thick or non-existent. Finding
the cause of the dry mouth may be more difficult and require some
laboratory testing. Salivary gland biopsy for stones or tumors
should be performed if indicated.
The treatment of dry mouth involves the management of the
condition causing it. If dry mouth is caused by medication, the
medication should be changed. If dry mouth is caused by blockage of
the salivary ducts, the cause of the blockage should be
investigated. When systemic diseases, such as diabetes and anemia,
are brought under control dry mouth problems may decrease.
The use of caffeine-containing beverages, alcoholic beverages,
and mouthwashes containing alcohol should be minimized. The drinking
of water and fruit juices will decrease dry mouth problems. Chewing
gum and lemon drops can be used to stimulate saliva flow. Bitters
also can initiate salivary flow as long as the salivary glands and
ducts are functional. Commercial saliva substitutes are available
without prescription and can be used as frequently as needed. Use of
a humidifier in the bedroom reduces nighttime oral dryness.
The prognosis for patients with xerostomia due to medication
problems is good, if the offending agent can be changed. Dry mouth
due to systemic problems may be eliminated or improved once the
disease causing the dry mouth is under control. Persistent
xerostomia can be managed well with saliva substitutes.
A patient needs to ask his or her health care provider if any
medication to be prescribed will cause dry mouth. Patients with
persistent xerostomia need to practice good oral hygiene and visit a
dentist on a regular basis; the lack of adequate saliva can cause
severe dental decay. The salivary glands are very sensitive to
radiation, so any patient scheduled for radiation therapy of the
head and neck needs to discuss with the radiation therapist ways to
minimize exposure of the salivary glands to radiation.