Saliva has an important job to do in your mouth. For starters, it helps to remove food particles. But it also helps prevent tooth decay and infection by washing away plaque and keeping disease-causing bacteria from building up on your teeth and gums. But saliva can’t do all that work by itself. So it’s important to remove plaque yourself by practicing good oral hygiene, which means proper flossing each day, and twice-daily tooth brushing.
Most of us don’t think about the moisture in our mouths until our mouths become dry. A variety of conditions can cause dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, including the following:
- Cancer treatments. If you have any type of cancer of the head or neck and you receive radiation therapy, dry mouth is a common side effect because the radiation damages the salivary glands in addition to destroying the cancer. Some medications used to treat cancer in any part of the body can also cause dry mouth.
- Prescription medications. Hundreds of common medications, including many antidepressants and medications for high blood pressure, can contribute to a dry mouth. If you take medications that seem to make your mouth feel dry, be especially vigilant about tooth brushing and proper flossing.
- Nerve damage. Some types of injuries to the head or neck can damage the specific nerves that tell the salivary glands to produce saliva.
- Chronic illness. Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and Parkinson’s disease are among the diseases that can contribute to a chronic dry mouth.
- Drug use. Methamphetamines have been associated with dry mouth.
Symptoms of a chronic dry mouth include chapped lips, dry tongue, burning or sticky feeling in the mouth, mouth sores or infections, and difficulty tasting food, chewing, swallowing, or speaking. A dry mouth is common in older adults, and research has shown that it has a negative impact on quality of life because of the discomfort associated with the symptoms.
Findings from a 10-year review published in the Journal of the American Dental Association in 2007 suggest that identifying signs of dry mouth early in older persons can help prevent the plaque buildup and possible tooth decay and even severe gum disease that can result if the condition is left untreated.
Ask older friends and relatives whether they experience symptoms of dry mouth and help them follow a consistent oral care routine, or be sure that a caregiver is assisting with oral care if necessary. Older adults who have trouble following proper flossing techniques with standard floss may be able to use a disposable flosser or an electric flosser that also stimulates the gums.
Some older people suffer from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease characterized by extremely dry eyes and a dry mouth. Sjogren’s occurs in older adults and is more common in women than in men. The exact cause remains unclear, but if you or someone you know develops Sjogren’s, paying attention to dry mouth is extremely important. Even someone with a long life history of dental hygiene can develop tooth decay simply because of the excessive lack of saliva that accompanies this condition.
A review in the Journal of Dental Research in 2008 found that adults with Sjogren’s are at increased risk of tooth decay and tooth loss, in part because of the lack of saliva and in part because the composition of the saliva changes, which makes it less able to battle plaque-causing bacteria.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for treating Sjogren’s syndrome or dry mouth, although preliminary research suggests that some type of gene therapy may be possible in the future.
The best way to treat dry mouth involves managing symptoms and practicing good oral hygiene. If you suffer from Sjogren’s syndrome or from dry mouth caused by illness, medications or other factors, you can ease your symptoms by sipping water often during the day, or by sucking on sugarless hard candies or chewing sugarless gum to help stimulate saliva flow. Avoid tobacco and alcohol, too—these can contribute to a dry mouth and make your chronic dry mouth worse.
But remember, none of these strategies are a substitute for a thorough oral care routine. That means twice-daily tooth brushing (or more often if you eat sticky or sugary snacks) and regular visits to a dentist or dental hygienist for a professional cleaning.