Dry mouth

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 17, 2015
StartSymptomsDry mouth

A dry mouth can be irritating. However, it is often a simple thing and can be easily fixed.


Definition & Facts

A dry mouth - or a condition/symptom named xerostomia - is defined as any condition where the mouth is unusually dry. This is usually a simple annoyance, but it can have an impact on the health of the person. Saliva has digestive enzymes in it, and kick starts the entire process of digestion.

Teeth are protected by saliva as it helps to wash away food particles. Acids produced by bacteria are also washed away by saliva. In a dry mouth, these two things don't happen as effectively. A little known fact about saliva's usefulness, however, is that it helps enhance taste, and can leave food bland without it.


There are many things that can cause dry mouth. One of the most common causes, however, is a drug of one type or another. These include:

  • Cancer therapy drugs - radiation specifically can damage salivary glands temporarily or permenantly
  • nicotine - tobacco (smoked or chewed) increases this symptom marked
  • medications for various things - over the counter, depression treatments, nerve pain treatments, and muscle relaxants all can cause dry mouth
  • the use of methamphetamine also increases the risk of severe dry mouth, and tooth damage, for a condition called "meth mouth"

Health conditions can also cause a dry mouth. These include a stroke, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer's. Snoring or sleeping with an open mouth are also possible causes of a dry mouth in the morning that gets better as the day goes on. Damage to nerves in the head or neck can also cause a dry mouth.

The damage can come from a surgery or from an injury, depending on where it is. Aging can be a factor as well because older people take medications that are more likely to cause a dry mouth or can develop health conditions that add to it.

When to see a doctor

Chronic dry mouth is a good reason to see a doctor, especially if it happens at night. A chronically dry mouth can lead to a whole list of health issues - tooth decay, difficulty eating, difficulty swallowing, and more. A doctor's appointment should also be followed up with a dental appointment after the dry mouth has been addressed.

The dentist will be able to determine if the dry mouth did anything to harm the health of the teeth. They will also schedule follow ups should someone need more help with their oral health. Chronic dry mouth will also cause horrible breath if it happens at night, and can further decay of the teeth, as mentioned earlier.

The three warning signs that indicate it's time to see a doctor ASAP are 1) extensive tooth decay, 2) risk factors for an HIV infection, and 3) dry eyes, skin, a rash, or joint pain. Dry mouth can be insanely difficult to deal with for those who cannot put their hand on the cause. However, anyone with a dry mouth but none of the warning signs should get to a doctor within a week of the dry mouth starting.

Treatment & Therapy

If the doctor can find a concrete cause for the dry mouth, they will often try to fix that without making the dry mouth worse. For those with a chronic dry mouth at night due to nighttime pills, the doctor may change the dose to be taken in the morning. Pills that need to be dissolved under the tongue should be avoided if the person has a chronic dry mouth.

If the dry mouth is being caused by any drug, there could be a possible dose change, a change in how the drug is given, or even the drug itself if possible. Drinking water before taking capsules could help keep dry mouth from occurring if it is a drug issue. Should the drug not be able to be changed, it will probably be taken in the morning instead of night to avoid nighttime dry mouth - which can make cavities and other oral issues worse.

If the cause is not known, a drug can be prescribed to increase the flow of saliva to help decrease dry mouth. If there is no drug available for the person, sipping sugarless fluids can help. When dry mouth is acute, chewing gum that has xylitol in the ingredients can be chewed to help stimulate the saliva flow.

Avoiding sugary and acidic foods can help keep the cavities and other tooth related issues to a minimum with dry mouth at night. A fitted mouth guard for fluoride applications can be given to someone by their dentist if the need is great enough at home for this kind of treatment.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

One of the best ways to prevent lifestyle choice influenced dry mouth is to avoid those choices. Tobacco can easily be avoided for those who have not developed a habit of smoking or chewing, and the habit can be kicked for those who have a bad habit involving smoking or chewing tobacco with help from doctors and therapists.

Training to breathe through the nose can also bring some prevention to the table since it keep the mouth closed, contained, and reduces air flow via the mouth that can cause it to dry out. If breathing through the mouth cannot be avoided at night due to snoring or other habits, a humidifier to add moisture to the air can help prevent dry mouth caused by sleeping with an open mouth or snoring.

Water is one of the best prevention methods here as well. Drinking it with meals can aid with swallowing, and sucking on ice cups or sipping it through the day can keep dry mouth away. A fluoride toothpaste will help keep dry mouth from affecting the teeth, as will using a fluoride rinse or a fluoride gel, and seeing the dentist at least twice a year for a yearly check up.

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