Dry Mouth – More Than An Uncomfortable Symptom

2011-03-31 | |
Last updated: 2019-11-06

The unpleasantness of a dry mouth is an experience that most of us will endure in its most extreme form when we have a bad cold or have had too much alcohol the night before. Drinking causes simple dehydration and all that breathing through our mouths from a cold quickly dries out the saliva. The result is a tongue that can stick to the roof of the mouth and breath that can peel paint. It is certainly unpleasant when it occurs, but after we are again hydrated or the cold is vanquished, our mouths will resume producing saliva as normal.

Although drinking as a cause of dry mouth is well understood, dry mouth can be a greater issue. For many people, a dry mouth or xerostomia is more than a passing experience. It represents a chronic problem that affects the quality of life. In the more serious cases, the condition can also become a health issue. As a result, knowing the causes and effects of dry mouth are important.

Who is Affected by Dry Mouth?

Within the US population, between 1 in 5 and 1 in 4 people complain of chronic problems of dry mouth. In those over the age of 65, 30% suffer from the problem. The number of people affected by the condition continues to increase.

What are the Causes of Dry Mouth?

The most significant reason for this increase can be tied to increases in medication use amongst the population. Drugs for high blood pressure, depression, pain control and allergies can all cause varying levels of dry mouth. This includes both prescription and over the counter drugs.

According to a study by the Academy of General Dentistry, roughly 90% of dental patients who complain of dry mouth are taking more than one medication. In addition, 1 in 3 people who take 3 or more medications regularly will suffer from dry mouth. With the increases in medication use and increasing number of seniors using medications, the problem will affect an increasing percentage of the population.

Although medications are the single biggest cause of dry mouth, the condition does affect many others. People with allergies are often at risk of the condition because of how they breathe. A plugged up nose and sinuses will cause some allergy sufferers to breath through their mouth causing dry mouth to occur.

One last cause of dry mouth to mention that is also common is as a result of cancer treatment. In this case, it is not the medications that cause the problem. In cancers of the head and neck, unintended radiation delivery often damages the salivary glands. This results in the glands being less able to produce sufficient saliva.

What are the Effects of Dry Mouth?

While having a dry mouth may seem like a rather insignificant health problem on the face of it, it can result in numerous issues. At a minimum, it causes chronic bad breath and a bad taste in the mouth. More significantly, the lack of adequate saliva can make both swallowing and speaking difficult. As well, without saliva, eating solid food becomes a challenge. Together these issues can cause significant disability for those affected.

By far the most serious health problem, however, is that inadequate saliva in the mouth affects the overall chemistry of the mouth. To maintain a normal chemical balance, a continuing flow of saliva is necessary. The saliva helps to maintain the enamel of the teeth by supplying concentrated calcium and phosphate, both of which are necessary for dental health. Saliva is also important because it removes food particles from the surface of the teeth and limits the growth of bacteria.

More Serious Effects of Dry Mouth

In the more severe cases, bacteria are not the only invader that gets a foothold in a dry mouth. Saliva flow normally prevents the growth of fungus in the mouth, and when it is mostly absent the result is an ideal environment for the fungus. Diabetics, in particular, are susceptible to dry mouth and the oral candidiasis fungal infections that can result from it.

In the long term, such changes in chemistry caused by dry mouth can result in serious gum disease, tooth and bone decay as bacteria and fungus routinely take over. In older populations, especially, the high concentrations of bacteria in the mouth can lead to pneumonia as bacteria from the mouth are breathed into the lungs where they set up colonies and cause illness. Studies have also found a relationship between these oral health problems and COPD. Quite clearly, the potential implications of dry mouth can be serious if not properly addressed.


Dry mouth is a condition that affects a significant and growing percentage of the population, most notably those on medications and those who are older. While it may seem to be an insignificant condition, chronic dry mouth can lead to serious health problems if not addressed. This means that it is important to recognize the problem and seek medical assistance in order to avoid future health issues. In some cases, it may require prodding friends and loved ones to take the problem seriously.

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Category: Disease Prevention, General Health, Health Risks, Symptom Information

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