Signs and Symptoms of Dry Mouth

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Perhaps you slept all night with your mouth open. Or, you didn't drink enough H2O after a rigorous workout. Maybe, just maybe, you had a few too many cocktails and didn't get water in between rounds. You wake up the next morning, feeling parched--the dreaded "cotton mouth."

We likely all indulge in a behavior that leads to a dry mouth every now and then. But if you find yourself parched more often than not, you might have what doctors call xerostomia. That's really just a fancy term for dry mouth that happens when you don't have enough saliva or spit–that watery stuff made by glands inside your mouth. Untreated, it can lead to real dental problems if you don't know what to watch for.

Warning Signs

Dry mouth isn't technically a disease; it's a symptom that can occur from many different causes. You might get it when taking certain medications–like those used to treat depression, cancer, and high blood pressure. Radiation therapy of the head and neck can sometimes dry your mouth out, too. Certain diseases, like Sjögren’s syndrome, can also cause it.

Here are some red flags that could mean you have dry mouth:

  • Your throat and tongue hurt often and a lot.

  • You have bad breath.

  • You need to frequently moisten your mouth.

  • You feel like you always need a drink or a mouth lozenge. People with dry mouth may be very thirsty at night, waking up often to take a sip of water.

  • You have a severely parched pout; your lips are sore, cracked, and peeling. Doctors call this cheilitis.

  • Foods don't taste the same. Dry mouth can affect your taste buds. You might have a metallic, salty, or other taste in your mouth.

  • Eating or swallowing is difficult. Food might stick to your tongue and inner parts of your mouth. Patients often find dry foods like toast, cereal, and crackers are troublemakers.

  • Dentures are painful. Dry mouth and dentures don't mix. The false teeth need a moist mouth to fit well and feel comfortable. If your mouth is dry, the dentures can cause sores.

  • There are red spots in your mouth. You might see them on the top of your tongue, the roof of your mouth, and the back of your throat. You might also have ulcers.

  • You see white, creamy patches on your tongue and inner cheeks. This is called thrush or oral candidiasis.  It can also cover other parts of the mouth, gums, and tonsils. This condition isn't always caused by dry mouth, but it can be.

  • You have a lot of cavities. Saliva (and good brushing) helps flush bacteria away from your teeth and gums. Dry mouth helps bacteria breed, leading to severe tooth decay.

  • Lipstick sticks to your teeth. Assuming you weren't messy with your makeup application, this can be a telltale sign of a parched pout and mouth.

  • The glands in front of your ears, called the parotids, are swollen.

If you have these signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor or dentist. Three out of 10 adults who have lost teeth or have gum disease had dry mouth and didn't know it. The good news is there are easy ways to keep your mouth moist and prevent dental complications. Talk to your doctor or dentist about the best products to use. 

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 6

  1. Xerostomia. Oral Cancer Foundation.

  2. Xerostomia. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

  3. Xerostomia (Dry Mouth). Merck Manual Consumer Version.

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