Dry mouth clinically known as Xerostomia is caused by a decrease in saliva production and is a common condition which can severely affect the sufferer’s quality of life.
As life expectancy increases the incidences of dry mouth are expected to be more prevalent. It has been estimated that as much as 20% of the adult population may be suffering the effects of dry mouth, 50% - 60% being over the age of 60. The condition seems to be predominant in women.
Prolonged dry mouth usually leads to a marked deterioration in oral health, often resulting in the loss of teeth and affecting the general well-being of the sufferer.
Temporary dry mouth can be due to anxiety, stress, vitamin deficiency or smoking. But the most common cause of dry mouth is the 500 commonly used drugs where dry mouth is a side effect.
The causes of long term or irreversible dry mouth include radiotherapy, head & neck surgery, Diabetes, Sjögrens Syndrome, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Raynauds Disease, Scleroderma and Parkinson’s Disease and Primary Biliary Cirrhosis to name but a few.
The Importance of Saliva
The full importance of saliva’s protective role is often overlooked, particularly where dry mouth is a secondary problem. Apart from its more obvious role of lubrication and cleansing, saliva is the body’s oral defence mechanism against the introduction of infection into the body via the mouth as well as playing a vital role in protecting the teeth and oral tissues from disease.
Saliva is a complex fluid and is essentially made up of 99% water and 1% enzymes which jointly aids digestion, taste and speech. In addition, essential salivary enzymes provide a constant protective mechanism which controls the activity of potentially harmful microorganisms. These enzymes are responsible for regulating conditions in the mouth, keeping teeth and gums healthy and comfortable.
So where there is a reduced saliva flow, the lack of salivary protection can lead to severe oral symptoms causing considerable distress and discomfort to the sufferer.
Recognising Dry Mouth
The feeling of having a dry mouth is subjective and it may only be during a routine medical or dental visit that an accurate diagnosis is made.
Oral examination may reveal a split or cracked tongue, swollen gums, gingivitis, increased dental plaque, dental caries, oral thrush or ulceration. Any or all of these problems can arise as a direct result of a lack of saliva - although the sufferer may not be aware of the cause.
Typically, dry mouth sufferers complain of symptoms such as a ‘burning’ mouth, abnormal taste sensations, and bad breath, difficulty in speaking and eating and inability to retain dentures. Many also find dryness at night causes them to wake frequently, so disturbing their normal sleep patterns.
Where dry mouth is suspected, a few preliminary questions can help reveal the full extent of the condition, affording the opportunity to offer valuable help and advice.
Treatments for Dry Mouth
Effective management of Xerostomia is of prime importance to lessen the progressive effects of uncontrolled bacteria on the hard and soft tissue of the mouth, and to keep dry mouth sufferers feeling comfortable.
The importance of stimulating the flow of natural saliva is now well recognised in order to benefit from the protection action of natural saliva.
Whether the condition is temporary or irreversible it is important to encourage a careful oral hygiene routine and regular visit to the dentist.
It is not uncommon however, to find dry mouth sufferers avoiding good oral hygiene because their mouths are uncomfortable and often painful. Nevertheless, they should be encouraged to brush their teeth frequently and thoroughly using a soft-bristled, small-headed toothbrush and wherever possible avoid sugar-containing foods, especially at night.
Menthol-free, mild-flavoured toothpaste may be more easily tolerated and toothpastes without foaming agent - sodium lauryl sulphate - are preferable. Where a sufferer wishes to use a mouthwash, alcohol-free versions are essential.
Recognising the symptoms of dry mouth and offering practical help and advice can be an important psychological and therapeutic benefit to these sufferers.
Many of them may never have discussed the problem believing they ’just have to live with’ the condition and in most cases sufferers will be relieved that someone has recognised their dry mouth really is a problem and can help them deal with it!