Xerostomia — more commonly known as “dry mouth” — is a common dental condition that causes lower levels of saliva production. People who are prone to dry mouth usually see complications such as:
- Increased cavity risk
- Bad breath
- Difficulty eating and speaking
- Oral infections
- Sores under dentures
Because the mouth is designed to be a consistently lubricated environment, xerostomia can lead to a number of dental health issues. Most people don’t realize the symptoms until dry mouth becomes severe. Being aware of the common causes can help individuals take proactive steps to minimize their risk of dental complications.
Causes of Dry Mouth
There are a number of different reasons why people experience dry mouth symptoms. A few of the most common causes include factors such as:
- Prescription or over the counter medications: One of the most common side effects listed in the fine print of medications (or during the disclaimer portion of a drug commercial) includes dry mouth. Some of the primary culprits are antihistamines and allergy products, anti-depressants, pain killers, and reflux medications (along with dozens of others).
- Medical conditions: Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that can cause decreased saliva production, but there are many medical issues that can cause or contribute to dry mouth. Let your doctor and dentist know if you’re experiencing dry mouth, as it may aid in diagnosing unknown health conditions and be linked with other physical symptoms.
- Cancer: Chemotherapy and head and neck radiation can alter many things in your body, including saliva production. In fact, head and neck radiation may destroy the function of saliva glands altogether. Cancer patients should work closely with their dentists leading up to and following treatments, so as to avoid potential complications with their oral health.
- Tobacco and alcohol use: Products such as cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, vaping (smokeless) equipment, alcohol, and recreational drugs are known to create dryness of the oral mucosa and decrease saliva production, which often leads to complications such as tooth decay and gum disease.
- The wrong oral health products: Alcohol containing mouthwashes can dry out the mouth. Although you may feel like everything is fresh right after rinsing, shortly afterwards you will often start to experience dryness of the tissues.
The Effects on Tooth Enamel
Your teeth rely on saliva more than you may realize. As a natural lubricant, saliva ensures that everything moves around easily, without becoming dry or stuck to the tissues next to it. It also naturally “washes” your teeth throughout the day, helping to rinse away excessive acids, food particles, and bacterial debris.
When saliva production is shut down, it leaves the teeth without a buffer against the surrounding elements. Food, sugars, and acids sit against the enamel for a much longer period of time. Even if you have a relatively healthy diet and good oral hygiene, this fact alone is enough to drastically increase your risk of developing dental decay. Once a tooth begins to develop cavities, the decay can easily spread to other teeth; although this can happen in healthy mouths, it’s even more prevalent when a lack of saliva comes into play.
Dry mouth sufferers almost always have a significantly higher rate of caries (cavities) than people with adequate saliva production. The drier the teeth are, the more susceptible they are to the bacteria working against them.
Because we know how harmful xerostomia is to teeth, it’s important to take steps to avoid or manage it, so that healthy enamel can remain decay-free if at all possible. Without proactive treatments, it is simply a matter of time before the decay process starts to take place.
Dry Mouth Treatments
Being proactive about xerostomia is the best way to minimize unwanted side effects and the daily impact that symptoms have on things like eating, denture-wearing, or speaking.
Your dentist may want to prescribe a saliva substitute, drops, or recommend a specific line or oral care products that lubricate the mouth.
It’s best to avoid mints or chewing gum as saliva stimulants because many of them contain sugar or artificial sweeteners that can increase bacteria growth in the mouth. Your dentist may recommend chewing sugar-free gum to help encourage saliva production.
Staying hydrated is essential. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and rinse your mouth routinely after drinking other liquids or following meals.
Get a Professional Opinion
Most importantly, talk to your dentist to make sure your teeth stay healthy, that you use the recommended products for your given situation, and to screen for potentially undiagnosed medical needs.
Keeping a six-month checkup schedule allows adequate time for your dentist to intervene should side effects of dry mouth start to impact your overall oral health. Most dental insurance plans will cover two exams per year, but if you don’t have coverage through your employer an affordable alternative is a dental savings plan. The discount options available through Aetna Dental Offers can save you 15-50% off of basic dental care, including dry mouth consultations.