Dry Mouth: Causes, Treatment, And Prevention

Dry Mouth: Causes, Treatment, And Prevention

 Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH
Written by Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH
Medical Reviewed on Dec 8, 2022
byDr. Matthew Hannan DDS
🔬 Evidence Based
Dry Mouth: Causes, Treatment, And Prevention

Xerostomia – or as most of us call it, “dry mouth” – is an annoying oral condition that can affect everything from our breath to being able to eat comfortably.

Dry mouth happens when there’s an absence or low supply of saliva inside of our mouth. It can even be more prevalent at certain times of the day or if we’re taking specific types of medication.

But your mouth needs saliva to function properly. Saliva is essential to chewing, swallowing, speaking, and even reducing your risk of getting cavities and infections. That’s why dry mouth isn’t just bothersome – it’s unhealthy!

Dry Mouth Symptoms

You might not realize that you have dry mouth symptoms if xerostomia is something you’ve gotten used to living with. If you only get dry mouth once in a while, that’s ok. But persistent dry mouth symptoms can lead to long-term damage when it comes to your teeth.

No, xerostomia isn’t a natural part of getting older. So let your dentist and doctor know if you’re experiencing dry mouth symptoms like:

  • red, raw, or sensitive oral tissues
  • difficulty swallowing
  • a filmy white buildup inside your mouth
  • burning sensations
  • problems talking, because of little saliva
  • little lubrication between your tongue, lips, and cheeks

Having dry mouth usually doesn’t cause pain, but the lack of lubrication combined with the constant movement of your mouth might lead to irritation or sores in certain areas of your mouth.

How To Get Rid Of Dry Mouth

Dry mouth treatment means determining the cause of your xerostomia and then taking steps to limit your risk factors. Once you know the cause, it’s easier to manage your xerostomia.

In the meantime, most dry mouth treatment consists of DIY techniques (that, might I add, are completely backed and supported by dental professionals) to help keep your mouth as lubricated as possible.

Why does any of this matter? Because dry teeth get cavities far quicker than teeth that have saliva around them. Saliva acts as a buffer to help protect your tooth enamel. No, it doesn’t mean that having a lot of saliva gives you an excuse to brush and floss, but it is essential for the day-to-day integrity of healthy tooth structure.

Dry Mouth Home Remedy

  1. I can’t stress it enough but drink more water.
  2. Suck on ice chips (but make sure not to chew them because that can hurt your teeth)
  3. Avoid salty, spicy, sticky, or sugary foods
  4. Avoid alcohol (including alcohol-containing mouthwashes), tobacco, and caffeine
  5. Use a humidifier at night
  6. Use lip lubricants frequently
  7. Chew on sugar-free gum, mints and/or candy
  8. Clean between your teeth every day

Most dry mouth treatments are actually home remedies prescribed by your dentist or dental hygienist. If you’re using mouthwash with alcohol in it, breathing through your mouth, smoking, etc. – STOP!

Next, up your water intake. Hydrate throughout the day. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. The more water, the better. Not running to the bathroom a few times a day? Then you’re not drinking enough!

If you have a hard time making sure you’re getting enough H2O, keep a refillable bottle on hand that measures how much water you’re drinking. Water helps lubricate your mouth when saliva doesn’t and gives your body the liquid it needs to turn around and produce more saliva. It’s a win-win.

What Causes Dry Mouth And Why Is It Bad?

The first step to treating xerostomia is to figure out what’s causing it, because you can only prevent dry mouth problems when you know why they’re there. Although there are a dozen different dry mouth causes, it’s fairly straightforward to rule them out one at a time without a lot of extra investigative work.

Basically, the reason why we get xerostomia is because our saliva glands aren’t working properly. They’ve either shut down, or there’s something preventing them from making the amount of saliva that they’re supposed to. The average person is supposed to make at least ¼ of a gallon of saliva per day. It sounds like a lot, but it’s divided up between the glands in your mouth. The largest glands are just on the cheek side of your upper back molars, in the floor of your mouth, and just under your tongue. Then there are tons of tiny glands scattered across the roof of your mouth, lower lip, inside of the cheeks, and at the back of your throat.

Ultimately, the best person to help you narrow down your dry mouth causes is your dentist. Even though your doctor is familiar with xerostomia, your dental team will have an expert opinion when it comes to what’s going on inside of your mouth. And if your dry mouth causes are because of something medical going on, your dentist will give you the information you need to have an educated discussion with your primary care physician.

Why Do I Get Dry Mouth At Night And In The Morning?

Did you know that sleeping can actually cause dry mouth? That’s right! When you go to sleep at night, your body naturally starts shutting down to rest. And that includes your saliva glands. So, when your head hits the pillow and you finally fall asleep, your saliva glands are taking a break too. The good news is that you probably won’t really notice it, because you’re not talking or eating. But the moment you wake up with cotton mouth and your tongue feels stuck where it’s at, you’ll see that a dry mouth at night is totally normal.

Side note: One of the most important reasons to brush, floss, and use fluoride mouth rinse before you go to bed is because of a dry mouth at night. You don’t want bacteria, acids, or leftover food particles sitting on your teeth all night long when there’s no extra saliva to provide a barrier over your enamel.

Is There A Reason Why I Get Dry Mouth?

Aside from sleeping and having a bit of natural dry mouth when you wake up in the morning, chronic xerostomia can come from these common causes.

1) Mouth Breathing

Always congested? Constantly battling seasonal allergies? Do you possibly have a sleeping disorder? If so, you’re probably breathing through your mouth instead of your nose. Athletes tend to breath through their mouths, too. But mouth breathing just sucks that air right into all those mucosal tissues, almost instantly drying them out.

If you’re having trouble breathing through your nose, you really need to talk to your doctor or an ENT. There could be an obstructive issue like a deviated septum or enlarged nasal turbinates causing restricted air flow.

Fortunately, mouth breathing can also be a habit that’s correctable (unless it’s something you do while you’re asleep.)

2) Medication

The next time you see a prescription drug commercial on the TV or an ad in a magazine, listen or look for the fine print. Dry mouth or xerostomia is one of the most common side-effects of over the counter and prescription medications. Especially the ones that dry you out, like decongestants and allergy meds. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and drugs taken for behavioral health needs like ADHD are also known to cause dry mouth.

Of course, it’s not always possible to just give up your medication. Especially if the benefits outweigh the risks. But you can still talk to your doctor about possible alternatives to use, or work with your dentist to manage dry mouth symptoms.

3) Diabetes

If you have diabetes, some of the medications that you’re taking to help regulate your blood glucose levels may play a part in your saliva production. There’s a link between diabetes and dry mouth but it really varies from person to person. What we do know is that if your blood sugar levels get too high, it can result in decreased saliva flow. If you’re good about keeping your glucose in check, it can help you prevent and manage chronic xerostomia.

4) Age

Is getting older the reason why people have dry mouth? Technically, no. However, age does go hand in hand with other conditions that, in turn, can trigger xerostomia. This is why older individuals do tend to have more dry mouth problems than people who are younger.

For example, if you’re on several medications because of a blood pressure problem, or maybe you’ve been having health issues because your immune system isn’t what it used to be, your mouth might feel drier than it was in years past. If you’re missing teeth, wearing removable prosthetics like dentures or a partial denture can add to the equation.

5) Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s are hard on both the individual and their family members. If you have a loved one who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you may need to help them set up a way to increase their water intake. Why? Because people with dementia often don’t drink enough, and as a result they get dehydrated quicker than the rest of us. And dehydration in turn dries out various parts of the body – like our mouths.

Saliva is made up of 99% water, so making sure you’re getting enough H2O will give your body what it needs to secrete enough fluids and keep mucous membranes lubricated.  

6) Sjögren’s Syndrome

This autoimmune disease causes the body to attack itself by mistake. And what are some of the most common side effects? Dry mucous membranes, like the ones in your eyes and mouth. In fact, xerostomia is one of the most predominant symptoms of this disorder. It’s most common in women over the age of 40 and is associated with other rheumatic diseases like lupus and arthritis.

Even if you’re able to manage the dry mouth symptoms, you’ll need to seek medical care because of how Sjögren’s Syndrome affects your joints, skin, liver, thyroid, and kidney.

In the case of Sjögren’s Syndrome, having dry mouth might actually help you get a quicker medical diagnosis.

7) Cancer Therapy

If you have cancer and are receiving radiation therapy or chemotherapy, you should know that dry mouth may come along with your cancer treatment. Especially if you’re receiving radiation treatment anywhere around your face and neck, where your saliva glands are located. In some cases, your saliva glands may never bounce back or produce the same amount of lubrication that they did prior to your cancer diagnosis.

Fortunately, you can start taking steps to protect your mouth before, during, and after cancer treatments to lower your chances of having cavities after your radiation or chemo is completed.

8) Tobacco And Alcohol

Whether you smoke or like to have a glass of wine now and then, both tobacco and alcohol products are naturally drying to your mouth. That’s why smokers are at an extremely higher risk of getting gum disease.

What if you don’t smoke or drink? You might be using a mouth rinse that contains alcohol, which can also dry out your mouth.

The good news is that giving up tobacco products can help increase your saliva flow within just a couple of weeks. With alcohol, it might only take a few days to notice a difference, as long as you’re only having a drink every now and then.

9) Drug Use

Recreational drugs can dry out your mouth and increase your level of tooth decay. Depending on which drug it is and how you’re using it, some are “worse” for your teeth than others. If you’re someone who uses medical marijuana or cannabis, there are actually specific receptors inside of our saliva glands that – when they come into contact with cannabis products – trigger the body to not produce as much saliva.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have methamphetamine, which can cause a serious condition called “Meth Mouth” where cavities literally take over practically every visible tooth surface in your dry mouth.

Products For Dry Mouth

If your body can’t produce saliva because of a syndrome, cancer treatment, medication, or other health reason, then you may need to talk to your dentist about a saliva substitute. These usually come in liquid form and you place a few drops in your mouth. There are also dry mouth rinses and toothpastes to keep your mouth more lubricated, so that it isn’t as difficult to swallow or talk. The downside to saliva substitutes is that they can make your mouth feel kind of slimy.

It’s ok to use mints or gums to stimulate saliva production along with other dry mouth treatment, but ONLY if they’re totally sugar free. Look specifically for the ingredient “Xylitol” listed on the front of the package. Xylitol is an ingredient that can help fight plaque and cavities (which, of course, are more common in people with dry mouth.)

Dry Mouth Prevention

Are you somebody who has had dry mouth problems in the past or is particularly prone to a low saliva flow? Just go back to the home-based remedies we talked about before: drinking water, staying hydrated, and using sugar-free products like gums or mints, which naturally increase saliva flow (Hint: Your mouth waters when you’re chewing things).

Also, be sure to check the labels on your medications and supplements. If some are more apt to cause dry mouth than others, ask your doctor if there’s an alternative prescription to try.  

Good Oral Health Tips

People with dry mouth really need to have good oral hygiene. That means thoroughly brushing off every speck of plaque and flossing in between every tooth, every day. Plus, rinse with fluoride mouthwash before you go to bed at night (when your saliva glands shut down) to help safeguard your tooth enamel.

Consider asking your dentist about a prescription fluoride gel to use each day and be sure to request a fluoride varnish treatment whenever you’re due for your six-month cleaning.

When To See A Dentist

At what point do you need to see a dentist about dry mouth? Chances are, your dentist or hygienist will pick up on your lack of saliva during your routine checkup if you haven’t noticed it already. But if you’re seeing a significant reduction in your saliva flow for a couple of weeks (and it doesn’t improve with hydrating or medication changes) then you need to give your dentist’s office a call.  

They’ll likely walk through your medical history to help rule out any autoimmune diseases or underlying health issues. If needed, they might refer you back to your physician for further testing. In the meantime, they’ll usually have some different samples of dry mouth products they can give you to try out for free.

Dry Mouth Overview

Dry mouth is a serious problem because it significantly raises your risk of getting cavities, bad breath, oral infections, and having problems swallowing. Fortunately, it’s usually easy to determine the causes of dry mouth. Prevention can range from drinking more water to addressing other health issues. Most dry mouth treatment comes down to DIY techniques and products you can easily get over the counter. Talk to your dentist if symptoms don’t improve within a couple of weeks.

 Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH
Written by Whitney DiFoggio MA, RDH"Teeth Talk Girl," is a registered dental hygienist. She started her dental health journey on YouTube, educating the public through videos.
Dr. Matthew  Hannan DDS
Medical Reviewed byDr. Matthew Hannan DDSDr. Matthew Hannan is a board-certified dentist and graduate of UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry.
Last updated onDecember 8, 2022Here is our process

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