What is Xerostomia? Xerostomia is a condition related to the salivary glands which keep the mouth moist. When the glands do not work properly, the amount of saliva in the mouth decreases, causing dry mouth. Saliva prevents tooth decay, helps us taste and swallow our food and aids in digestion. Xerostomia affects approximately 25% of the population, although most patients do not realize they have a problem until they lose up to 50% of their saliva. Over the past 10 years, I have seen a significant increase in the number of patients with xerostomia. The rapid progression of dental decay caused by dry mouth is devastating and can create a “dental cripple”.
What is the cause of dry mouth? There are several causes of dry mouth, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, diabetes and dehydration. However, medicines are the most common culprit. There are more than 400 medications that can contribute to dry mouth. While medications are necessary to treat medical problems, it is their side effect of dry mouth that is harmful to the teeth.
How important is saliva? Saliva is the “bloodstream of the mouth” which nourishes and protects our teeth and gums. It’s composed mostly of water, but contains electrolytes, mucus, antibacterial compounds and various enzymes. Without adequate saliva, patients are more vulnerable to tooth decay, periodontal disease and fungal infections. Saliva helps food naturally be moved away from teeth. Saliva has an important role in buffering the pH of the mouth. After the intake of sugars, carbohydrates, soda, fruit juice and sport drinks, the mouth becomes acidic (pH 2-4) and leads to tooth decay. The oral pH of a patient with a healthy flow of saliva returns to neutral (pH 7) in approximately 20 minutes after food and drink consumption. The oral pH of a patient with a poor flow of saliva may take up to 2 hours to return to neutral pH.
What can I do to prevent dry mouth? Treatment involves identifying correctable causes and removing them if possible. Hydration is important, drink plenty of water. Eliminate drying alcoholic mouth washes, and avoid a diet high in sugars and sticky carbohydrate-rich foods. Many over-the-counter dry mouth products exist to help lubricate and neutralize the mouth. Vigilant home oral hygiene, a careful evaluation by your dentist and a customized dry mouth plan will also help.