What is dry mouth syndrome?
Dry mouth syndrome refers to when you don't produce enough saliva. It is also called xerostomia. Sometimes dry mouth syndrome is just a nuisance, but some people find it affects their health, teeth and gums, and even their quality of life. It is often a side-effect of medicines, so talk to your doctor if you think you have dry mouth syndrome.
Types of dry mouth syndrome
Saliva is produced by the salivary glands in the mouth. It plays an important role in washing away food from the teeth, keeping bacteria under control in the mouth, helping to taste, chew, swallow and digest food.
Dry mouth syndrome refers to when the salivary glands stop producing enough saliva. This can happen for many reasons, including:
- as a side-effect of many medicines, including those you buy over the counter
- getting older
- chemotherapy for cancer
- nerve damage to the head or neck
- health conditions such as diabetes, stroke, yeast infection (thrush) in your mouth, or Alzheimer's disease
- anxiety and stress
- drinking a lot of alcohol or soft drinks
- chewing tobacco
- using drugs such as methamphetamines or marijuana
Sometimes dry mouth syndrome is caused by conditions that stop the salivary glands from working properly, such as Sjögren’s syndrome, scleroderma, systemic lupus erythematous, hepatitis C infection, rheumatoid arthritis, anorexia nervosa, or bulimia.
What are the symptoms of dry mouth syndrome?
As well as having a very dry mouth, in severe cases people with dry mouth syndrome may find it difficult to speak, eat or swallow. This can lead to further health problems, including malnutrition or problems with the teeth, mouth or throat.
Other symptoms include:
- saliva that feels thick and stringy
- a sore throat
- feeling thirsty
- needing more liquids to help with swallowing
- changes to the sense of taste
- dry or cracked lips
- a hoarse voice or a cough
- dry eyes, nose or corners of the mouth
- mouth ulcers
- white patches in the mouth (yeast infection)
- bleeding gums
- tooth decay
How is dry mouth syndrome diagnosed?
Your doctor will have a close look at your mouth and will ask about any medicines you are taking. Sometimes they may order tests, including blood tests or imaging to see why the salivary glands aren’t working or whether there is another medical reason for the problem.
How is dry mouth syndrome treated?
Sometimes dry mouth syndrome can be easily fixed if you by stopping taking the medicine that is causing it. However, you should not make changes to your medication without first consulting your doctor.
Your doctor will also recommend products to keep your mouth moist and to protect against tooth decay, such as mouth washes, moisturisers or artificial saliva. There are also medicines available to stimulate the salivary glands to produce saliva.
It is important to treat problems in the mouth caused by dry mouth syndrome, such as thrush, mouth ulcers and dental problems.
Living with dry mouth syndrome
You can ease the discomfort of dry mouth syndrome by:
- sipping water regularly (but avoiding sugary drinks, fruit juice or cordial)
- rinsing your mouth with water after you eat
- chewing sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva
- quitting smoking
- avoiding foods that irritate your mouth, such as citrus foods, spicy foods, foods with sharp edges like crackers or chips, or alcohol
- trying to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth
- keeping the air in your bedroom moist with a humidifier
- using moisturiser on your lips, preferably with SPF 30+ sunblock
Dry mouth syndrome greatly increases your chance of getting tooth decay or gum disease. It is very important to see your dentist regularly and to protect your teeth by:
- using a soft toothbrush and flossing
- using a prescription toothpaste, if recommended by your dentist
- avoiding toothpastes that cause your mouth to burn
- using mouth rinses
- avoiding sugary or acidic foods
If you wear dentures, make sure you keep them very clean. Rinse them after meals, brush them daily with a soft brush and mild soap (not toothpaste) and soak them in water overnight. Speak to your dentist if your dentures don’t fit well.
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Last reviewed: June 2020