If you’ve been reading our dental education blogs, we’ve been talking about how poor oral health can lead to more serious health conditions. Today, we want to highlight a health condition that may negatively impact oral health and is quite common.
What is Xerostomia?
Say this three times fast: “xerostomia.” Believe it or not we can guarantee you’ve heard of it, just in its more colloquial form. Chances are you’ve even experienced it after a night of indulging, or when you were really nervous. Got it yet?
Drum roll please…it’s dry mouth! Okay, so maybe not as exciting as you thought but it can cause serious oral health conditions such as decay and acid buildup. Let’s talk about why it matters to you and what some of the causes are. Some will surprise you.
Why is saliva important?
Spit happens for a reason
In addition to protecting our teeth, preventing decay by neutralizing acids, limiting bacterial growth, and washing away food particles, saliva also helps us chew, digest and enjoy our food, and speak. By enhancing our taste buds and providing enzymes to break down our food so we can absorb its nutrients and digest it, saliva helps us get the most out of our food. It also makes the act of eating more enjoyable, making it easier to chew and swallow. (Ever try eating a plate full of soda crackers without a drink?) According to mouthhealthy.org, “saliva keeps the surface of your teeth strong by providing high levels of calcium, fluoride and phosphate ions at the tooth surface.” All in all, saliva is a pretty big deal.
Decreased saliva and dry mouth can range from being merely a nuisance to something that has a major impact on your general health and the health of your teeth and gums, as well as your appetite and enjoyment of food. It’s only when there’s an issue and we are underproducing saliva that we begin to take notice.
The most obvious symptom of dry mouth is your mouth feels dry, but dry mouth can cause other symptoms as well. According to the mayo clinic, if you’re not producing enough saliva, you may notice these signs and symptoms all or most of the time:
- Dryness or a feeling of stickiness in your mouth
- Saliva that seems thick and stringy
- Bad breath
- Difficulty chewing, speaking and swallowing
- Dry or sore throat and hoarseness
- Dry or grooved tongue
- A changed sense of taste
- Problems wearing dentures
What causes dry mouth?
Common causes of dry mouth are:
- Dehydration: the obvious culprit and the one most of us have experienced. This type of dry mouth is easily remedied by restoring fluids and cutting back on dehydrating substances such as alcohol or salty foods.
- Medication- Certain types of medication (anti-depressants, anti-histamines, decongestants, diuretics) cause dry mouth. This can be a problem because without saliva bacteria can’t be washed away, causing more tooth decay, gingivitis and other oral health problems. If you’ve been reading our series, you’ll know how gum disease affects our overall health.
- Aging. Yup, one more thing to decline as we age.
- Recreational drug use- methamphetamine use can cause severe dry mouth and damage to teeth, a condition also known as “meth mouth.” Marijuana also can cause dry mouth.
- Radiation treatment
Less well-known causes of dry mouth:
Blocked Salivary Gland/Duct- Yes, we have glands, believe or not that produce saliva through a series of ducts. When all is well, we won’t pay attention to these glands but when one is blocked it can cause serious issues and signal underlying health issues.
What are Salivary Glands?
Just as in your home when ducts are clear in the salivary glands all can run smoothly. When a duct becomes blocked then it can impede the production of saliva causing dry mouth or xerostomia. Sometimes ducts are blocked by salivary stones caused by calcification. These stones occur more commonly in men and depending on the severity of the blockage and the issues they are causing may need to be surgically removed.
When does dry mouth indicate something more serious?
According to the American Dental Association, dry mouth is one of the symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own moisture-producing glands, the tear-secreting and salivary glands, as well as other organs. The Mayo Clinic also lists diabetes, stroke, thrush, HIV, and Alzheimer’s disease as being associated with the condition. If you’re chronically suffering from dry mouth and it doesn’t seem to fit the list of common culprits see your doctor.
What are some remedies for dry mouth?
If you suffer from dry mouth, your dentist (us!) can recommend various methods to restore moisture. The remedy will depend on what is causing it. We’ve started with some basic suggestions below.
If you suspect the cause is dehydration:
- Limit your caffeine intake and alcohol to start
- Chew sugar free gum, or indulge in sugar-free candy (sweetened with xylitol is a bonus) to stimulate saliva flow.
- Use an artificial saliva or oral rinse.
- Use mouthwashes designed for dry mouth without alcohol in them.
- Sip water throughout the day.
- Avoid over the counter medications such as antihistamines that contribute to dry mouth and you suspect your prescription medication is the cause talk to your doctor about other options.
Did you know?
That duct responsible for about two thirds of our saliva production, is named for the researcher who discovered it, Thomas Warton, and is called Wharton’s Duct. Want to geek out (we applaud those who do) and see where it is? Check out this diagram from the Encyclopedia Britannica.