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Dry Mouth Could be Sign of Bigger Health Issue

It’s unpleasant, that cottony, sticky feeling induced by excessive thirst. Those who suffer from dry mouth experience this sensation frequently. While the condition known as xerostomia may be common among baby boomers—with estimates that it affects anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of the 55-and-older population—it is not necessarily a normal part of aging. Furthermore, it can harm your oral health.

What is dry mouth?

Dry mouth occurs when improper gland function reduces saliva flow. Lacking normal saliva levels may seem annoying, but it has more serious implications.

Salvia lubricates the mouth and helps with food digestion, and it also plays an important role in oral health by preventing infection and decay and controlling bacteria and fungi. This means dry-mouth sufferers face an increased risk of dental problems such as gum disease, tooth decay and oral infections—problems some seniors already face an increased risk of due to certain diseases and a lifetime of habits such as tobacco use or poor oral hygiene.

What are the symptoms?

In addition to a sticky, dry feeling in the mouth, commonly cited symptoms include:

  • Frequent thirst
  • Cracked lips
  • Mouth sores
  • Bad breath
  • Difficulty swallowing, chewing and/or tasting
  • Trouble speaking
  • A dry tongue and/or throat
  • Burning mouth
  • Sore throat

What are the causes?

Medications and medical treatments are prime suspects when it comes to dry mouth, especially in aging adults. Consider this: More than 400 over-the-counter and prescription medications can decrease salivary gland output, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. More than 76 percent of Americans age 60 and older use two or more prescription medications and 37 percent use five or more, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can cause dry mouth. The CDC reports that, every year, more than 400,000 cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy suffer from oral problems such as painful mouth ulcers, impaired taste, and dry mouth. (The American Cancer Society offers nutritional suggestions that can help patients cope with this side effect.)

Additionally, diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer’s can cause dry mouth. Nerve damage sustained as a result of head or neck injuries reduces saliva production. Stress, tobacco use, and other lifestyle-related issues can also play a role in dry mouth.

What harm can dry mouth cause?

The general discomfort dry mouth creates may or may not feel manageable. It should not be ignored, however. Real oral health problems such as gum disease and tooth decay can be consequences of decreased saliva production. The condition may also be a symptom of an underlying health concern, which is another reason to take note and schedule an appointment with your dentist.

How is dry mouth treated?

Depending on the cause and severity, your dentist may prescribe a medication or suggest you use artificial saliva. There are many things you can do on your own to manage dry mouth, such as:

  • Drinking enough water
  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, which dry out the mouth
  • Avoiding sugary and sticky foods
  • Brushing immediately after consuming sugary and sticky foods
  • Using an alcohol-free mouthwash

Where can I learn more about dry mouth?

The following organizations’ websites include information to help you learn more about dry mouth and ways to address it.

As always, talk to your dentist or health care provider about any concerns you may have. Maintain regular checkups and cleanings throughout your lifetime!

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