Drought in Your Mouth?

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Dry mouth, known medically by the term xerostomia, is a medical condition that doesn't receive a great deal of attention. But if you're among the thousands of people who suffer from chronic dryness of the mouth, you know how unpleasant, annoying and even dangerous it can be.

"It can seriously mar the quality of life," notes Dr. Bruce Baum of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an expert on salivary (saliva-producing) gland disorders.

"Dry mouth can lead to cavities, mouth sores and infections; chewing, speaking and swallowing difficulties; and other problems. The good news is that there are therapeutic options that can often successfully deal with this symptom."

What Causes Dry Mouth?

Contrary to popular belief, dry mouth is not a normal part of aging. Dry mouth comes about when the salivary glands don't work properly. It is a common side effect of many medicines, including those for high blood pressure and depression. Long-lasting mouth dryness may also be the result of head and neck radiation treatments, chemotherapy, nerve damage, stress, or diseases such as thyroid disease, diabetes, AIDS, Parkinson's disease and autoimmune conditions such as Sjögren's (pronounced "show-grens") Syndrome, a disorder in which the person's own immune system targets moisture-producing glands and causes dryness in the mouth and eyes. 

There is currently no cure for severe salivary gland damage.

Dr. Baum and his colleagues have been working on novel approaches, including using gene transfer methods and trying to develop an artificial salivary gland. "Based on the results of our studies thus far," Dr. Baum says, "I am optimistic that we or others will be able to help these patients in the not too distant future." However, such therapies are still being tested in the laboratory and are not yet ready for patients.

Dry Mouth Symptoms

Beyond simply being a nuisance, dry mouth can lead to addition problems, including the ability to swallow, enjoy food, and, in severe cases, problems with communication. When it lasts for several days or weeks, dry mouth is often a symptom of disease. Symptoms include: 

  • viscous and pasty saliva mouth
  • chapped lips
  • ulcers on the internal cavities due to movements of the mouth in the absence of lubrication
  • infections of the mouth and on the tongue
  • dental caries and halitosis due to lack of salivary enzymes 

Treating Dry Mouth

In the meantime, certain treatments may help some people with dry mouth. Dr. Baum advises chewing sugarless gum or candy and drinking lots of fluid to keep your mouth moist. Many drugs, such as those used to treat high blood pressure and depression, cause dry mouth. Talk to your doctor or dentist about the medicines you are taking: You may need to have your dosage adjusted or your medicine changed. Ask your doctor or dentist about prescription medicines that may help the salivary glands function better, and about the possibility of using artificial saliva to keep your mouth wet. When you eat, sip water or other non-caffeinated drinks to make chewing and swallowing easier.

Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine, all of which dry out the mouth. Lastly, try putting a humidifier in your bedroom.

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