Dry Mouth

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Introduction

What is dry mouth?

Dry mouth, medically known as xerostomia, is the condition of not having enough saliva to keep the mouth wet. Dry mouth is a common side effect of many medications. Inflammation or obstructions of the salivary glands are often associated with dry mouth, as these glands are responsible for the production of saliva in the mouth. Diseases, such as Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and diabetes, may also result in a dry mouth. Emotional disorders, such as a panic attack caused by severe anxiety, may cause dry mouth due to the stress or “flight or fight” response, which reduces saliva production in the mouth.

Dry mouth is commonly associated with periodontal disease, as saliva helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in the mouth, which causes gum disease, oral infections, and tooth decay. Dry mouth, if not treated, can make chewing, eating, swallowing, and even talking difficult.

In some cases, dry mouth may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have dry mouth along with other serious symptoms, including difficulty breathing or swallowing.


Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with dry mouth?

Dry mouth may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Mouth symptoms that may occur along with dry mouth

Dry mouth may accompany other symptoms affecting the mouth including:

  • Bad breath
     
  • Burning sensation in the mouth or on the tongue
     
  • Cracks in the lips or at the corners of the mouth
     
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing
     
  • Difficulty talking
     
  • Dry, rough tongue
     
  • Mouth sores or mouth infections, such as recurrent candidiasis
     
  • Pain in the mouth or on the tongue
     
  • Taste changes
     
  • Thick, stringy saliva
     
  • Tooth decay

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, dry mouth may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have dry mouth along with other serious symptoms including:

Causes

What causes dry mouth?

Saliva, produced by the salivary glands in your mouth, plays an important role in your mouth by cleansing it and removing food debris. Dry mouth occurs when the salivary glands that make saliva don't work properly. Because many over-the-counter and prescription medicines have dry mouth as a side effect, they are a common cause of the condition. In addition, some diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and Sjogren’s syndrome (autoimmune disease characterized by dry eyes and mouth), can reduce the function of the salivary glands, resulting in dry mouth.

Other causes of dry mouth include certain cancer treatments and damage to the glands’ nerve supply. Neural impulses are needed from the brain to stimulate the glands’ production of saliva. Any disease or disorder that affects these impulses will result in dry mouth. In addition, the natural aging process may reduce the salivary glands’ ability to produce adequate saliva, resulting in dry mouth. The sympathetic nervous system’s response to stress that results from severe anxiety or depression can also cause a dry mouth. If dry mouth is left untreated, infection may develop in the salivary glands, mouth, or tongue due to increased bacterial growth.

Common causes of dry mouth

Common causes of dry mouth include:

  • Aging
     
  • Cancer therapy
     
  • Medications
     
  • Snoring or sleeping with your mouth open
     
  • Tobacco use

Disease causes of dry mouth

Certain diseases can also cause dry mouth including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
     
  • Diabetes
     
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
     
  • Sjogren’s syndrome (autoimmune disease characterized by dry eyes and mouth)
     
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)

Serious or life-threatening causes of dry mouth

In some cases, dry mouth may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Adverse drug reactions
     
  • Serious infections

Questions for diagnosing the cause of dry mouth

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your dry mouth including:

  • How long have you felt dryness in your mouth?
     
  • When does your mouth feel dry?
     
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
     
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of dry mouth?

Because dry mouth can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums)
     
  • Spread of infection
     
  • Tooth decay
     
  • Tooth loss
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 28
  1. Dry mouth (xerostomia). National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/topics/drymouth/.
  2. Dry mouth or xerostomia. CancerNet. http://www.cancer.net/patient/All+About+Cancer/Treating+Cancer/Managing+Side+Effects/Dry+Mouth+or+Xe....
  3. Furness S, Worthington HV, Bryan G, et al. Interventions for the management of dry mouth: topical therapies. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; :CD008934.
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