Dry Mouth

Introduction

Also known as ‘Xerostomia’ , dry mouth is essentially a result of reduced flow of saliva.

Causes of Dry Mouth

There are many causes of dry mouth. Many of us will have experienced the temporary sensation of “drying up” when nervous, for example when sitting exams or doing some public speaking. A side effect of some medications is reduced flow of saliva, e.g. those used to control high blood pressure, anti-parkinson drugs and anti-anxiety agents. Also some systemic diseases and conditions give rise to feelings of dry mouth. Up to 40% of elderly people actually complain of dry mouth.

The feeling of a dry mouth is quite uncomfortable and often gives rise to difficulty in speaking and eating and can have a major negative impact on the quality of a persons life. Reduced saliva flow can give rise to an increased incidence of tooth decay, gum disease and also an increase in oral infection, such as candida albicans. Following radiotherapy to treat cancer in the head and neck area, salivary flow can stop altogether either long term or for periods of up to three months. It is essential that people about to undergo such treatment have active management of their oral health to prevent the problems associated with dry mouth.

Management of Dry Mouth

People with dry mouth lose the protective effect of saliva in preventing dental decay and trauma to the oral mucosa. Management of the problem involves making the person comfortable by providing oral lubricants (saliva substitutes) and preventing disease through the use of fluoride mouthrinses and mouthrinses to control plaque. People with dry mouth should be careful not to suck sweets regularly e.g. mints or toffees. Although this may give temporary relief it will cause severe dental decay in the absence of saliva. Frequent consumption of sugary drinks e.g. Coca Cola, is also to be avoided.

Nowadays there are many saliva substitutes on the market, generally available through pharmacies, which are highly effective in reducing the unpleasant side effects of reduced flow of saliva. There are now well defined methods for assessing the flow of saliva and it is important to seek the advice of your dentist as soon as symptoms appear. (Edgar & O’Mullane 1996)

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