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Dry mouth can be a serious oral health problem

If you find it difficult to swallow, your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth, and your lips form a single impenetrable line, you may have dry mouth. You are not alone.

Dry mouth, or xerostomia as it is clinically called, is a common oral health problem that is related to a reduction in the flow of saliva, says Dr. Matthew Moore, a Fredericton dentist. “The prevalence of dry mouth increases with age and is found in approximately 30 per cent of those aged 65 years and older.”

The most common cause of dry mouth is medications, he adds. “Over 500 medications have the side-effect of dry mouth. These medications cause the salivary glands to produce less saliva, leading to this condition.” Among the medications that can cause dry mouth are those taken for high blood pressure (anti-hypertensives), acid reflux (proton-pump inhibitors), allergies (antihistamines), sedatives and anxiety (benzodiazepines), “water pills” (diuretics), and antidepressants.

“The more medications that are taken, the more likely a person is to develop dry mouth,” notes Dr. Moore.

Some diseases can also cause dry mouth. Sjögren’s syndrome, for example, is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune cells attack and destroy the glands that produce tears and saliva. This results in chronic dry eyes and mouth.

Other diseases that are often associated with dry mouth include diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, a chronic autoimmune condition that occurs when the immune system attacks healthy tissue.

Radiation therapy to the head and neck is another common cause of dry mouth. “The salivary glands can be permanently damaged if exposed to radiation during cancer treatment,” says Dr. Moore.

Although it may not sound major, he adds, dry mouth can be a serious oral health problem for people, and it can produce significant and negative effects on a person’s quality of life. Dry mouth has been linked to oral candidiasis, a fungal infection often called thrush. People with constant dry mouth are also more likely to develop a condition called burning mouth syndrome.

“Depending on the severity of dry mouth, it may be difficult to swallow, talk, eat or taste food. Dry mouth can contribute to difficulties in wearing dentures, as well as increasing the risk of oral infections, dental decay, gum disease, and tooth loss,” says Dr. Moore.

Here’s why: it’s all about the saliva. Saliva plays a critical role in our oral health. It starts the digestive process, and it helps to lubricate the mouth and the throat. Saliva also cleans and washes away food, and it provides enzyme protection against bacteria and acids that can cause tooth decay.

Fortunately, there are often options to help alleviate dry mouth. It starts with prevention and good overall health, says Dr. Moore. “One of the best things that people can do to help prevent dry mouth is to generally strive to stay healthy, to keep a healthy body weight, and to reduce or manage the amount of medications they are taking.”

Drinking plenty of water can also help prevent dry mouth, as saliva is made up of more than 95 per cent water. As well, the flow of saliva can be stimulated by the use of sugar-free gum or hard candy. There are also foods and beverages that trigger dry mouth, such as alcohol, caffeine, and spicy, sugary, salty, and acidic foods. Butting out is also recommended, as smoking contributes to dry mouth.

An air humidifier can be used at nighttime, as salivary production is at its lowest during sleep and the problem of dry mouth may be compounded by breathing through your mouth while you are in dreamland. Acupuncture has also been shown to increase saliva flow and decrease the symptoms of dry mouth.

Because medications are the most common cause of dry mouth, one way of treating this condition is to manage the underlying medical conditions differently, says Dr. Moore. “Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about managing the medications you are taking to reduce the side-effect of dry mouth. Alternate medications may be available that will not have the same effect.”

Another way of treating dry mouth is to increase the production of saliva.  There are medications available that can help to do this. “These saliva stimulants improve the flow of saliva mainly by their effect on the central nervous system,” notes Dr. Moore.

One of the most common and easiest ways to treat dry mouth is known as symptomatic treatment. Sipping on a glass of water or using a saliva substitute are two examples of this type of treatment. There are several oral health products on the market that are specifically designed for treating dry mouth and substituting saliva and these include gels, sprays and mouthwashes.

“It is important for patients with dry mouth to have frequent dental visits and to prevent dental decay and gum disease,” says Dr. Moore. “Having regular professional teeth cleanings, fluoride applications, and restorations as needed can go a long way to prevent oral health problems and treat smaller problems rather than waiting until bigger problems arise.”

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