What is dry mouth?

Dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, is a common condition, particularly among older adults. A lack of saliva can cause oral health problems like cavities, gum disease, and oral infections. Without adequate saliva, the tongue cannot glide over the teeth, gums, and cheeks, making eating, speaking, or swallowing difficult. It can also lead to dry and cracked lips, bad breath, and altered taste. 

People that lack adequate saliva may have a diminished quality of life ranging from mild discomfort to significantly higher levels of tooth decay and gum disease, oral mucosal infections, dental extractions, and higher dental care costs. It is important to inform your dentist and medical provider if you suffer from dry mouth.

What are the most common causes of dry mouth?

Factors that contribute to dry mouth include systemic diseases such as diabetes and Sjögren’s syndrome and medical treatments such as cancer chemotherapy or head and neck cancer radiation treatment. Also, it is known that hundreds of medications from all major drug groups have the potential to cause dry mouth. 

Other causes of dry mouth can include certain vitamin deficiencies and conditions including, depression, schizophrenia, hyperthyroidism, and Parkinson's disease. Dry mouth can also occur temporarily from such causes as dehydration, anxiety, mouth-breathing, smoking, and alcohol consumption. In addition, some people may feel like they have dry mouth even when their salivary glands are working correctly.


What are the symptoms of dry mouth?

Symptoms of dry mouth include:

  • The feeling of not having enough saliva
  • Hoarseness and sore throat
  • Increased thirst
  • Trouble speaking
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing dry foods
  • Dry, cracked lips 
  • Bad breath

Other symptoms can include:

  • Taste alterations
  • Mouth sores
  • Thick, ropy saliva 
  • Burning sensation of the tongue and/or lips

How do you diagnose and treat dry mouth?

Dry mouth can be serious but is usually not an issue requiring immediate medical care. However, if you have symptoms and/or a declining quality of life, or believe it might be a side effect of a medication you are taking, then seek treatment by a dentist and/or an additional health care provider. Depending on the cause of your dry mouth, your health care provider can recommend appropriate treatment. 

Patients with dry mouth should be questioned about other systemic conditions such as Sjögren’s syndrome, diabetes and HIV/AIDS, which can cause dry mouth, as well as any treatments or medications they are receiving which can affect salivary gland function. Your dentist can refer you to a physician if an underlying systemic cause is suspected. Dry mouth is not a normal part of aging, so if you think you have dry mouth, then visit your dentist or physician.


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2. Managing dry mouth. American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs, Journal of the American Dental Association. 2015, February; Volume 146, ISSUE 2, PA40. from https://jada.ada.org/article/S0002-8177(14)00056-7/fulltext  

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4. Mouth Dryness or Thick Saliva. (2020, February 1) from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/mouth-problems/dry-mouth.html  

5. Dry Mouth and Older Adults: Information for Caregivers. (2019, July) from https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/dry-mouth-and-older-adults.pdf

6. Dry Mouth. (2022, September) from https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/dry-mouth

7. Sjögren’s Syndrome. NIH MedlinePlus Magazine. (2020) from https://magazine.medlineplus.gov/pdf/MLPSummer2020.pdf  

8. Sjögren’s Syndrome. (n.d.) from https://www.sjogrens.org/

Additional resources