Dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, may result from a variety of causes, including medications, stress, depression, underlying medical conditions or other therapies. Xerostomia is the medical term for the subjective complaint for dry mouth. By contrast, hyposalivation is a reduction in the production of saliva. Unfortunately, xerostomia is a common side effect of head and neck radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Why is saliva important?
Besides helping you swallow foods, saliva has several important functions. Did you know that saliva has protective effects? Saliva not only bathes and lubricates your oral tissues, but it also contains antimicrobial components along with digestive enzymes to break down food and fight against infections. Additionally, saliva helps in speech production as well as helps prevent dental decay (cavities). By washing away food from your gustatory receptors (taste buds), saliva also enhances your ability to taste foods.
What are some causes of dry mouth?
Medications, dehydration, anxiety, and underlying medical conditions are common causes of a reduction of saliva production. Additionally, head and neck radiation, which may damage salivary glands, as well as chronic graft versus host disease (GVHD), in which transplant cells may attack one's salivary glands, may lead to hyposalivation.
How are xerostomia and hyposalivation treated?
There are several treatment modalities for dry mouth. Of course, identifying the etiology is the first piece of the puzzle. Keeping your mouth moist and staying hydrated is extremely important. Sleeping with a humidifier, rubbing olive oil on oral tissues and drinking water frequently may provide relief. Additionally, practicing excellent oral hygiene is important. As mentioned above, without saliva to wash the food away from the grooves in your teeth, the risk for developing dental decay is increased. Visiting a dentist regularly and using a fluoridated toothpaste is critical. Salivary substitutes are available over the counter and may help relieve symptoms of hyposalivation. Xylitol lozenges may help stimulate salivary flow. There is burgeoning research suggesting that acupuncture may help in the treatment of hyposalivation. If these treatment methods do not provide relief, your dental oncologist may consider prescribing a salivary stimulant. It is important to note; however, that salivary stimulants are associated with a variety of side effects and may not be right for everyone. Hyposalivation also places patients at an higher risk for developing oral infections, specifically fungal infections, which can be painful. It is important to visit your dentist if you suspect you may have a fungal infection for further evaluation and treatment.
For more information on xerostomia, check out Top 8 Foods to Avoid When Your Mouth is Dry and Managing and Treating the Side Effects of Head and Neck Radiation Therapy.