Dry mouth, called xerostomia, is the medical condition of not having enough saliva to keep your mouth wet. It can happen to anyone – especially when they are stressed or nervous. When untreated, it can make chewing, swallowing, and even talking difficult.
Dry mouth increases the risk for tooth decay or infections, and is a common cause for cavities.
Causes of Dry Mouth
Dry mouth is a result of not drinking enough water during the day or rehydrating after exercise. Sometimes, temporary dry mouth comes from stress or nerves – such as the kind that comes from speaking in front a group of people or performing.
More times than not, having dry mouth is a side-effect of medication. In fact, nearly 20% of seniors experience it as a result of medications they are taking. Hundreds of medications cause the salivary glands to produce less saliva, such as medications for:
- High blood pressure
- Pain pills
- Overactive bladder medications
- Muscle relaxants
- Medication for Parkinson’s Disease
- Medication for anxiety
Other conditions that can cause chronic cases of dry mouth include autoimmune diseases, AIDS, diabetes, Sjogren’s syndrome, and cancer. Treatments for cancer like radiation therapy and chemotherapy cause dry mouth because the salivary glands can be affected during these types of treatments.
How Dry Mouth Causes Cavities
Cavities are created as a result of tooth decay. Tooth decay occurs when there is damage to the tooth, from plaque that is clinging to the teeth. The acid in plaque eats away at your tooth’s enamel, creating holes called cavities.
Dry mouth increases your chances for cavities because the primary function of saliva is to help wash away any food debris left in your mouth after eating. Enzymes in saliva help break down food and aid in digestion. Without saliva, the food does not get broken down enough and gets stuck to your teeth easier.
Saliva also contains bicarbonate, calcium, and phosphate which neutralizes plaque acidity and helps rebuild and restore tooth enamel. Without saliva, your mouth is much more at risk for developing cavities and experiencing tooth decay.
Issues Associated with Dry Mouth
Dry mouth causes other issues, too – not just cavities. If dry mouth goes untreated, severe tooth decay and gum disease is common. In fact, 30% of tooth decay in elderly adults is caused by dry mouth, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.
Untreated dry mouth can lead to other health issues, such as:
- Trouble speaking
- Fungal infections
- Difficulty chewing and swallowing food
- Dry nasal passages
- Difficulty wearing dentures
Treatments to Improve Your Oral Health
There are many effective ways to treat dry mouth and improve oral health. Your dentist might prescribe medication to help increase saliva production or they may recommend a saliva substitute.
Some at-home tips for treating dry mouth include:
- Sugar-Free Gum or Mints: Mints and gum help battle dry mouth by stimulating saliva production. Look for products that contain xylitol – a sugar substitute that helps prevent cavities.
- Brush and Floss Regularly: Practicing proper oral health hygiene prevents plaque buildup. When plaque gets built up on your teeth, the acidity it what breaks down your tooth enamel, increasing the risk for cavities.
- Drink Plenty of Water: Staying hydrated increases saliva production and helps keep your body health. Drinking water with a meal will help rinse away any residual food debris.
Depending on the severity of your dry mouth, some dentists may recommend having in-office treatments or sealants. These are coatings applied to the surfaces of the teeth to protect them against decay.
If you experience dry mouth, talk to your dentist right away to determine the source of the problem.