Having a dry mouth, (or xerostomia if we’re being technical) is common and is more often a symptom of a disorder than a disease itself. It happens because something prevents the salivary glands from making enough saliva to keep the mouth comfortably wet. Saliva is a fluid that plays a part in the first step of digesting food. It is alkaline and helps neutralize acids while it moistens and softens the food to make it easier to swallow. It also contains enzymes that break starches down into a simple sugar called maltose. There are three pairs of salivary glands in the mouth and the cheeks. The parotid glands are found in front of the ears. The submandibular glands are found under the lower jaw, and the there are also glands found under the tongue. There are other, smaller glands in the mucous membranes of a person’s mouth that also help produce saliva. Some of the conditions that may prevent these glands from producing enough saliva include the following issues.
The number of medicines that have dry mouth as a side effect is nearly unlistable. They include not only prescription drugs but those bought over-the-counter. The most likely culprits that have dry mouth as a side effect are drugs used to treat hypertension and drugs that treat depression. Other drugs that can cause dry mouth are muscle relaxants, pain medicines, and drugs that treat Parkinson’s disease.
When someone is fearful or anxious, the body goes into what’s called the fight or flight response. During this time, the body diverts fluid to places in the body that need them the most. When the body perceives that it's under threat, the fluids that go into saliva are not needed as much in the mouth. On top of this, a person who is anxious often breathes through their mouth, which dries out the membranes. Treating dry mouth that is caused by stress and anxiety is fairly simple. The person must remember to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water or using a humidifier. A hot shower also helps.
This happens when the body does not have enough water. It’s caused either because the person loses an unusual amount of fluid at a time, or they’re not taking in enough fluid. Often, dehydration is a combination of both. It can be caused by severe vomiting, heavy sweating, diarrhea, frequent urination, fasting and illness with a high fever. Dehydration can also be the result of spending too much time in the sun, diabetes, kidney disease and third degree burns. These burns damage skin to the point where it can no longer hold water. People who are at most risk for dehydration are infants and people over 60.
This happens when the electrolytes in the body are out of balance. Electrolytes are minerals dissolved in the blood and other fluids that help the body function. They include sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. Like dehydration, electrolyte disorders are more likely to happen to infants, older people and people who are sick. Besides having a dry mouth, people who have an electrolyte imbalance also have wrinkled skin, are tired and have decreased or no urination.
The drugs used in chemotherapy can alter saliva by changing its chemistry or how much of it the body produces. When it comes to radiation, the salivary glands can be damaged by the treatment if it is targeted at cancers of the head and neck. The changes that are made by both chemotherapy and radiation can be permanent or temporary. To combat this, cancer patients are urged to drink plenty of water, eat tart foods to stimulate the production of saliva and to chew gum or suck on popsicles or ice and avoid alcohol, which is dehydrating.
Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease, which is a disease where the body’s own immune system attacks it. In the case of Sjogren’s syndrome, the body attacks those glands that produce moisture, so dry mouth is a symptom. Other symptoms are dry eyes, nose and throat that can make swallowing and speaking difficult, change the taste of food and cause mouth ulcers or dental cavities. The overall dryness can lead to nosebleeds, hoarseness, ear infections and dry skin. Sjogren’s syndrome mostly affects women over 50.
Dry mouth is not simply the result of the physical processes of getting older. Many older people must take medications that dry out their mouth. They are also more likely to be dehydrated because they do not eat or drink enough to support the hydration in their bodies. Older people who suffer from dementia may simply forget to eat and drink at all. They are also subject to other health problems that make getting proper nutrition difficult or affect the ability of their bodies to produce moisture.
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