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A dry mouth is also known as xerostomia. It occurs when the salivary glands in your mouth don’t produce enough saliva.
This condition causes a parched, or dry, feeling in your mouth. It can also cause other symptoms, such as bad breath, a dry throat, and cracked lips.
Saliva is a necessary part of your digestion process. It helps moisten and break down your food. It also is a major defense mechanism to help your body maintain good dental health, protecting your mouth from gum disease and tooth decay.
Dry mouth isn’t a serious medical condition on its own. However, it’s sometimes a symptom of another underlying condition that requires treatment. It can also lead to complications like tooth decay and mouth sores.
Many factors can cause dry mouth. Additionally, having dry mouth alone doesn’t necessarily mean you have an underlying condition.
If you think another condition is the cause or if you notice other symptoms, it’s important to talk with your doctor about diagnosis and treatment options.
Possible causes of dry mouth include:
- Dehydration. Dehydration happens when your body loses too much fluid without getting replenished. This can happen due to vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, or blood loss. When you’re dehydrated, your body doesn’t produce as much saliva as it usually does, which can cause your mouth to feel dry.
- Medications. Dry mouth can be a side effect of many types of medication. Some of the most common types of medications known to cause dry mouth treat depression, anxiety, diarrhea, high blood pressure, and asthma. Antihistamines, diuretics, and some chemotherapy medications can also reduce the production of saliva. It’s important to talk with your doctor before stopping any medications that you think may be causing mouth dryness.
- Radiation therapy. Dry mouth is a common side effect of receiving radiation therapy to the head or neck. Radiation damages the salivary glands, reducing the secretion of saliva.
- Stress and anxiety. When you’re stressed or anxious, your body makes more cortisol, the “stress hormone.” When cortisol levels increase in your saliva, it can change the composition of your saliva, resulting in mouth dryness.
- Aging. It’s common to experience dry mouth as you get older. This may be due to health issues, certain medications, and changes to how well your body is able to process the medications you take.
- Mouth breathing and snoring. Breathing through your mouth causes saliva to evaporate. Snoring with your mouth open can have the same effect. This can make your mouth dry or worsen existing dryness.
- Smoking and recreational drug use. Smoking tobacco and weed can reduce the production of saliva. Using methamphetamines can also result in a very dry mouth.
Conditions that may cause dry mouth
Dry mouth can also be caused by several health conditions, such as:
- Diabetes. Dry mouth is a common symptom of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It’s thought that increased blood sugar levels may affect saliva production, which, in turn, can lead to dry mouth. People with diabetes are often prone to dehydration and also take medications that can cause mouth dryness.
- Oral thrush. Oral thrush is a yeast infection in the mouth. The infection causes inflammation, which can damage your salivary glands. As a result, the glands may have a harder time producing enough saliva.
- Nerve damage. An injury, infection, surgery, or stroke that results in damage to the nerves in your head or neck can affect the ability of your salivary glands to produce saliva. This can result in dry mouth.
- Cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition that damages the digestive and respiratory systems. It can negatively affect the function of salivary glands. Medications used to manage cystic fibrosis may also worsen dry mouth.
- Autoimmune disorders. In an autoimmune condition, your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. The most common autoimmune condition associated with dry mouth is Sjögren’s syndrome. This disease involves inflammation in the salivary glands, resulting in mouth dryness. Other autoimmune diseases that may cause dry mouth include HIV/AIDS and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease can interfere with a person’s ability to stay well hydrated. Additionally, people with Alzheimer’s disease might have a difficult time following directions for taking dry mouth medication.
Having a dry mouth causes a sticky or parched sensation in the mouth. Other common symptoms include:
Dry mouth is usually a temporary and treatable condition. In most cases, you can prevent and relieve symptoms of dry mouth at home by doing one or more of the following:
- sipping water throughout the day
- sucking on ice cubes
- limiting alcohol and caffeine
- limiting salt and sugar intake
- avoiding tobacco or recreational drugs
- using a humidifier in your bedroom when you sleep
- taking over-the-counter saliva substitutes
- chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candy
- using over-the-counter toothpastes, rinses, and mints
It’s also important to brush and floss your teeth daily and to get a dental checkup twice per year. Good oral care can help prevent tooth decay and gum disease, which can result from dry mouth.
If your dry mouth is caused by an underlying health condition, you may require additional treatment. Ask your doctor for more information about your specific condition, treatment options, and long-term outlook.
Your doctor will likely review any medications you’re taking to see if any may be causing your dry mouth. Your doctor may change one or more of your prescriptions, or they may recommend that you change your dosage.
Your doctor may also prescribe artificial saliva or medications to increase saliva production in your mouth.
Therapies to repair or regenerate salivary glands may be available in the future to treat dry mouth, but a 2016 review indicated that further research is still needed in this area.
Saliva has many functions. Due to its anti-bacterial proteins, one of the many purposes of saliva is to help protect your teeth from harmful bacteria, and to keep your teeth healthy and free of cavities.
Having a dry mouth allows cavity-causing bacteria to flourish and grow.
To prevent tooth decay due to dry mouth, you can take the following actions:
- Frequently sip water to wash away excess food, debris, and bacteria.
- Chew sugarless gum to promote saliva production.
- Use a humidifier to increase the moisture level indoors.
- Get regular dental checkups to ensure you don’t have any cavities.
- If your doctor prescribes artificial saliva or medications for dry mouth, take them as directed.
Talk with a doctor or dentist if you notice signs of dry mouth. The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you don’t already have a dentist.
Make an appointment to see a doctor or dentist if you have ongoing symptoms, such as:
- dry feeling in your mouth or throat
- thick saliva
- rough tongue
- mouth sores
- trouble chewing or swallowing
- altered sense of taste that doesn’t go away
- bad breath that doesn’t improve with good dental hygiene
If you think that medications are causing your dry mouth, or if you notice other symptoms of an underlying condition, make an appointment with your doctor.
Your doctor can order blood tests and measure the amount of saliva you produce to help determine the cause of your dry mouth. Once your doctor has diagnosed the cause of your dry mouth, they can suggest treatment options.
If you’ve had persistent dry mouth, it’s also important to see your dentist to check for signs of tooth decay.
Dry mouth isn’t a serious medical condition on its own. However, it’s sometimes a symptom of another underlying condition that requires treatment.
You can often take care of dry mouth symptoms with self-care at home. If your symptoms continue, though, make sure you talk with your doctor. They can check for any underlying conditions or change any medications that might be causing your symptoms.
If you have dry mouth, it’s important to take good care of your teeth by brushing, flossing, and getting regular dental checkups. Doing so may help prevent tooth decay and gum disease caused by dry mouth.