If you’re experiencing the discomfort of dry mouth – hoarseness, frequent thirst, a sticky feeling, problems swallowing, bad breath – don’t dismiss it as merely a nuisance. Dry mouth, or xerostomia, can lead to an array of oral conditions you don’t want, including increased plaque, gum disease and tooth decay as well as certain mouth sores and oral yeast infections.
You can acquire dry mouth from several sources – some illnesses, prescription and over-the-counter medications, smoking, radiation therapy, nerve damage and simple aging. Whatever the cause, the result is too little saliva for good oral health.
What is saliva?
You probably know it’s the fluid that’s secreted from glands in your mouth, but you may not know how important it is to your body. You make between one and two quarts of saliva a day, of which 99.5% is water. The remaining half-percent seems minute but is vital – in it is a host of substances such as electrolytes, enzymes, mucus, and antimicrobial agents that keep your mouth and digestion healthy.
Here, adapted from the Mayo Clinic, is a list of some ways saliva benefits your oral health:
- Saliva neutralizes the acids produced by plaque bacteria, limiting growth of the bacteria that cause tooth decay and bad breath.
- By maintaining the correct pH balance, saliva also protects tooth enamel and can even help rebuild it.
- It helps wash away bits of food that stick to your teeth.
- It makes food easier to chew and swallow and its enzymes aid digestion.
- It enhances taste perception.
If you’re suffering from dry mouth, it’s important to re-stimulate the flow of saliva, even if the cause is temporary. Dry mouth, if left to persist, can make you a prime candidate for gingivitis and eventually more serious periodontal disease. Once your gums are infected, you will need specialized treatment.
Treating dry mouth depends on the cause, and your doctor or dentist is the best person to determine that. Your doctor may be able to diagnose underlying illnesses or change medications you are already taking. Your dentist, besides ensuring your teeth and gums remain healthy, can prescribe oral rinses or medications to boost saliva production, if necessary, or recommend you use artificial saliva. Artificial saliva, which you can buy without a prescription, keeps your mouth moist but doesn’t contain the substances in real saliva that help prevent gum disease and decay.
There are steps you can take yourself, too:
- Stay hydrated – drink plenty of water.
- Suck on sugar-free hard candies or chew sugar-free gum to increase saliva flow, specifically ones containing xylitol as they reduce cavity risk.
- Avoid spicy or salty foods, and limit caffeine and alcohol, both of which can dehydrate you.
- Breathe through your nose, not your mouth.
- Add moisture to your bedroom with a vaporizer.
- Keep flossing and brushing, and don’t miss a dental appointment!
The takeaway is this: Dry mouth is not an insignificant condition. It can be much more serious than just a bother – a prolonged deficiency of saliva can eventually lead to serious dental consequences.