A dry mouth occurs when there is not sufficient saliva present, and causes a dry, dehydrated feeling in the mouth. It is not usually a serious medical problem but may reflect other health issues.

Dr Roger Henderson look at dry mouth common causes and treatment options:

What is a dry mouth?

The medical term for a dry mouth is xerostomia, and occurs when the salivary glands in the mouth do not make enough saliva to keep it lubricated. Saliva is necessary to moisten food and help us chew, and is a vital part of digestion as it contains enzymes that help to start breaking down starch and fat in food. It also helps to keep the mouth generally lubricated, and in doing so help protect against tooth decay and gum disease.

What causes a dry mouth?

There are many possible reasons for a dry mouth, including medical conditions, some types of prescribed medication and person-related factors. Medical conditions include:

  • Diabetes
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Sjogren’s syndrome – a condition affecting different body parts including the mouth, joints and tear glands.
  • Oral thrush
  • Dementia

    Examples of medication that can cause a dry mouth include:

    • Antihistamines used to treat hay fever and allergies
    • Some medicines used to treat epilepsy
    • Tricyclic antidepressants
    • Beta-blockers used to treat heart problems
    • Antipsychotics used for severe mental health problems

      Person-related dry mouth causes include:

      • Anxiety and stress
      • Breathing through your mouth (such as can occur if you have adenoidal problems or a blocked nose, and this may be more noticeable at night)
      • Dehydration. This is one of the main causes of a dry mouth, either through a high temperature or from not drinking enough.
      • Smoking.
        dry mouth common causes and treatments

        Delmaine DonsonGetty Images

        How is a dry mouth treated?

        Dry mouth treatment depends on the cause, and your doctor will look at any treatments you may be taking to see if these could be the cause. Whatever the cause, these simple tips usually help everyone with a dry mouth:

        ✔️ Drink water on a regular basis, and take frequent sips of cold water through the day, always having a glass of water next to you when in bed. Sucking ice cubes can also be very helpful.

        ✔️ Chewing sugar-free gum can help to stimulate saliva production. Boiled sweets can also have the same effect but these are often high in sugar and so may be bad for the teeth.

        ✔️ Cut out caffeine and alcohol as both of these can be dehydrating.

        ✔️ Pineapple chunks can often help lubricate the mouth.

        ✔️ If you have dry or cracked lips, applying a lip balm or petroleum jelly to them can help prevent this.

        ✔️ Avoiding smoking.

        ✔️ If simple measures are not enough to help, then artificial saliva can be prescribed by your doctor. These come in gel, lozenge and spray forms but need to be used on a frequent basis as their effect only lasts a short time.

        When should I see a doctor?

        If you have a dry mouth that persists for weeks then seek advice from your GP or dentist. Key symptoms to look out for here are thick or absent saliva, trouble swallowing or chewing, an altered sense of taste, cracked lips or a rough tongue, and bad breath.

        Always make sure you practise good dental hygiene by brushing your teeth and flossing every day – this can help prevent gum and tooth problems that can be caused by a dry mouth.

        Last updated: 13-05-2021

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