Dry mouth, also called xerostomia (ZEER-oh-STOH-mee-ah), is the condition of not having enough saliva, or spit, to keep the mouth wet. Xerostomia is a common complaint found often among older adults, affecting approximately 20 percent of the elderly.
Xerostomia is not a disease, but it may be a symptom of various medical conditions, a side effect of a radiation to the head and neck, or a side effect of a wide variety of medications. It may or may not be associated with decreased salivary gland function.
Dry mouth can happen to anyone occasionally—for example, when nervous or stressed. However, when dry mouth persists, it can make chewing, eating, swallowing and even talking difficult. It also leads to halitosis and a dramatic rise in the number of cavities, as the protective effect of saliva's re-mineralizing the enamel is no longer present and can make the mucosa and periodontal tissue of the mouth more vulnerable to infection. Dry mouth also increases the risk for tooth decay because saliva helps keep harmful germs that cause cavities and other oral infections in check.
Individuals with xerostomia often complain of problems with eating, speaking, swallowing and wearing dentures. Dry, crumbly foods, such as cereals and crackers, may be particularly difficult to chew and swallow. Denture wearers may have problems with denture retention, denture sores and the tongue sticking to the palate. Patients with xerostomia often complain of taste disorders (dysgeusia), a painful tongue (glossodynia) and an increased need to drink water, especially at night.
Dry mouth occurs when the salivary glands that make saliva don't work properly. Many over-the-counter and prescription medicines, as well as diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Sjogren's syndrome, can affect the salivary glands. Other causes of dry mouth include certain cancer treatments and damage to the glands' nerve system. It's important to see your dentist or physician to find out why your mouth is dry.
Depending on the cause of your dry mouth, your health care provider can recommend appropriate treatment.