Dry mouth, or xerostomia (zeer-o-STOE-me-uh), refers to any condition in which your mouth is unusually dry. Most often, dry mouth is the result of a decrease in saliva produced by the glands in your mouth (salivary glands), and it’s frequently a side effect of medication. Less often, dry mouth may be caused by a condition that directly affects the salivary glands.
Dry mouth is a common problem. It can range from being merely a nuisance to something that has a major impact on your general health and the health of your teeth, as well as your appetite and enjoyment of food.
Saliva helps prevent tooth decay by neutralizing acids produced by bacteria, limiting bacterial growth and washing away food particles. Saliva also enhances your ability to taste and makes it easier to swallow. In addition, enzymes in saliva aid in digestion.
Treatment for dry mouth depends on the cause.
Dry mouth has numerous causes:
- Medications. Hundreds of medications, including many over-the-counter drugs, produce dry mouth as a side effect. Among the more likely types to cause problems are some of the drugs used to treat depression, nerve pain (neuropathy) and anxiety, as well as some antihistamines, decongestants, muscle relaxants and pain medications.
- Aging. The aging process doesn’t necessarily cause dry mouth. However, older people are more likely to take medications that may cause dry mouth, and they’re more likely to have other health conditions that can cause dry mouth.
- Cancer therapy. Chemotherapy drugs can change the nature of saliva and the amount produced. This may be temporary, with normal salivary flow returning after treatment has been completed. Radiation treatments to your head and neck can damage salivary glands, causing a marked decrease in saliva production. This can be temporary or permanent, depending on the radiation dose and area treated.
- Nerve damage. An injury or surgery that causes nerve damage to your head and neck area can result in dry mouth.
- Other health conditions. Dry mouth can be a consequence of certain health conditions, including the autoimmune disease Sjogren’s syndrome or HIV/AIDS. Stroke and Alzheimer’s disease may cause a perception of dry mouth, even though the salivary glands are functioning normally. Snoring and breathing with your mouth open also can contribute to dry mouth.
- Tobacco use. Smoking or chewing tobacco can increase dry mouth symptoms.
- Methamphetamine use. Methamphetamine use can cause severe dry mouth and damage to teeth, a condition also known as “meth mouth.”
If you’re not producing enough saliva, you may notice these signs and symptoms all or most of the time:
- Dryness in your mouth or throat
- Saliva that seems thick and stringy
- Bad breath
- Difficulty chewing, speaking and swallowing
- A changed sense of taste
- Problems wearing dentures
- More frequent tooth decay
- Gum irritation and gum disease
In women, dry mouth may result in lipstick sticking to the teeth.
When to see a doctor
If you’ve noticed persistent dry mouth signs and symptoms, make an appointment with your family doctor or your dentist.