Q: I’ve noticed that my mouth has become very dry lately. What
could be causing this problem, and is there anything I can do about
Q: I’ve noticed that my mouth has become very dry lately. What could be causing this problem, and is there anything I can do about it?
A: Many different medications can cause a dry mouth. One reason for this common side effect is that some drugs work by blocking a chemical that turns on glands throughout the body, including the salivary glands. But several other things can cause a saliva shortage, known technically as xerostomia (pronounced zer-o-STO-me-ah).
Dry mouth may result from certain autoimmune diseases, including lupus and Sjogren’s syndrome. Radiation treatments for head and neck cancer can also lead to dry mouth. And while old age by itself can’t make a person’s mouth unusually dry, the salivary glands do tend to produce less saliva as we grow older. So after about age 50, keeping your mouth moist may be more of a problem than when you were younger.
A sufficient supply of saliva is more important than you might think. Each day, the average person produces about three pints of saliva.
A lubricant for the mouth that keeps food from sticking to teeth, saliva contains antibacterial substances that help fight cavities. Like all fluids in your body, saliva also contains nutrients, including calcium and phosphorus, which the teeth absorb.
Saliva also neutralizes acid from the stomach and keeps the flow of food and drink through the mouth and esophagus on the right track, which is thought to help prevent heartburn.
Treating dry mouth depends on the cause and how severe it is. Here are seven tips for dealing with a dry mouth:
Chew sugar-free gum
Chewing stimulates the salivary glands to make more saliva. The gum should be sugar-free because, just as you’ve been told, sugar promotes cavities. However, note that this tip doesn’t work if your salivary tissue has been damaged by disease or cancer treatments.
Eat fibrous foods
Crunchy, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables like apples, carrots and celery are mildly abrasive. Eating these foods helps sweep bacteria and plaque off the teeth, which can help make up for a saliva shortfall.
Watch the alcohol
Although drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can help your heart, alcohol tends to dry out the mouth.
Wet your whistle
Regularly swigging water will help keep your mouth nice and moist. But unlike saliva, water lacks saliva’s health benefits. And unlike tap water, bottled water doesn’t contain tooth-protecting fluoride.
If you drink mostly bottled water, make sure you use toothpaste that contains fluoride, whether you have dry mouth or not. People with severe dry mouth might want to try saliva substitutes. They include mixes of glycerin and water (Moi-Stir), carboxymethyl cellulose gels (Salivart), and mucopolysaccharide ointments (Mouth Kote).
Get special treatments for your teeth and gums
Sometimes there’s no effective way to stimulate or replace saliva. In these rare cases, it’s a good idea to take special measures to protect the teeth and gums against the consequences of dry mouth. Dentists can coat the teeth with protective substances to help fend off cavities. Some fill existing cavities with materials that contain fluoride, which is then gradually released and absorbed by the tooth. Regular cleanings to remove cavity-causing plaque should also be a priority.
Floss and use mouthwash
People who don’t make enough saliva are more prone to tooth decay. That’s why it’s even more important to floss and brush regularly if you’re troubled by dry mouth. But note that certain alcohol-based mouthwashes like Listerine are double-edged swords. They kill bacteria, but the alcohol can further dry the mouth. Nonalcoholic mouthwashes like ACT and Biotene or low-alcohol ones like Plax are better choices.
Take medications to stimulate the salivary glands
Only people with very severe cases of dry mouth should consider these drugs. Pilocarpine (Salagen) is used more often, but a different drug called cevimeline (Evoxac) seems to have fewer side effects.
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