what causes dry mouth

Dry mouth (also known as xerostomia) is an oral condition that is caused by the reduction of saliva production. This condition can be extremely uncomfortable to endure and may lead to a range of health complications. It can make it difficult for you to speak, eat and digest food in the mouth.

In severe cases, xerostomia can cause anxiety, impair your quality of life and cause permanent mouth and throat disorders. Although this condition can affect anyone, according to the Australian Dental Journal (ADA), it is more rampant in older people.

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Causes of Dry Mouth

A side effect of certain medications

According to the National Institute of Health, over 400 medicines can affect your salivary glands, reducing saliva production. Most people suffer from this condition when the glands in the mouth start malfunctioning. While there are many reasons why your salivary glands may stop working correctly, the most common cause is the side effect of a specific medication.

Some of these medications include high blood pressure medication, antidepressants, antihistamines, diuretics, steroids like prednisone and prednisolone and amphetamines among others. Your dry mouth symptoms may resolve after you have finished taking the medication.

A side effect of certain diseases and infections

Dry mouth may also be a side effect of certain infections and diseases like HIV/AIDS, diabetes, anaemia, Alzheimer’s disease, mumps, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cystic fibrosis, hypertension, and rheumatoid arthritis, amongst others.

A side effect of certain medical treatments

Certain treatments can cause dry mouth. For instance, radiation for cancer can damage your salivary glands, causing dry mouth.

Nerve damage

Damaged nerves in your head and neck area from an accident or surgery can cause dry mouth.


Some of the conditions that cause dehydration like vomiting, diarrhoea, excessive sweating, and fever can cause dry mouth.

Surgical removal of the salivary glands

The removal of some of your salivary glands may cause dry mouth.


Smoking or chewing tobacco can affect your saliva production, causing dry mouth. The same applies to breathing through your mouth over a long period.

Symptoms of Dry Mouth

Some of the most common manifestations of dry mouth include;

  • A dry feeling in your throat
  • Frequent thirst
  • A sticky or dry feeling in your mouth
  • Sores in your mouth
  • Dry, red, raw tongue
  • A burning or tingling sensation in your mouth especially the tongue area
  • Hoarseness
  • Bad breath
  • Dry nasal passage
  • Problems eating, speaking, chewing or tasting

Why Is Dry Mouth a Problem?

Other than causing the symptoms mentioned above, dry mouth also increases your risk of gingivitis, tooth decay and mouth infections like thrush. Dry mouth can also inhibit you from wearing dentures.

Dry Mouth at Night

If your night dry mouth is infrequent, chewing on sugarless gum, or sipping on some water can help get rid of the problem. If on the other hand, you suffer from the regular dry mouth at night, you need to seek treatment immediately. Otherwise, it can lead to a variety of issues, including difficulties in eating and speaking as well as poor oral health.

How Is Dry Mouth Treated?

how to treat dry mouth

The treatment of dry mouth varies depending on the cause. For instance;

  • If your dry mouth is a result of specific medication, talk to your doctor about other options
  • If your dry mouth is as a result of malfunctioning salivary glands, your dentist may give you medication to help them work better

Different ways to treat dry mouth is by;

  • Breathing through your nose as opposed to your mouth
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Sucking or chewing on sugar-free gum or candy
  • Brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste or using a fluoride rinse
  • Visiting your dentist regularly
  • Use an over the counter artificial saliva substitute
  • Vaporise your bedroom to add moisture to the air
  • Limit caffeine intake
  • Stop tobacco use

Dental Effects of Constant Dry Mouth

According to the American Dental Association, a constant dry mouth can cause oral candidiasis, which is an oral infection popularly known as thrush.

Furthermore, according to the America Food and Drug Administration, the constant dry mouth may be a sign of an underlying disease and should be checked out by a medical professional immediately. Never assume your dry mouth as a small deal. If it is affecting the quality of your life, you should see your dentist so that they can come up with a solution to help minimize or resolve the problem.

Effects of low saliva/Protective role of saliva

Saliva is an integral part of a healthy mouth. It contains lubricating and cleansing properties that rid your mouth of bacteria and food particles. As a result, it comforts and protects the oral tissues against sores, ulcers and other frictional movements that accompany speaking and eating.

Other roles of saliva include;

  • Saliva plays a significant role in our ability to taste since it acts as a solvent for the taste stimuli. Lack of sufficient saliva production interferes with your ability to taste
  • Saliva makes your dentures hold on to your gums. When you have dry mouth, your dentures may feel loose. This is also made worse by the shrinkage of your supporting tissues, causing the gums and denture to become mismatched.
  • Saliva neutralises acids, protecting your teeth against decay and viral, fungal and bacterial threats. Just like poor oral hygiene and a sugary diet, dry mouth causes tooth decay.
  • It also helps digest food and boosts teeth remineralisation.

When your saliva volume is insufficient, all these functions become impaired.

Related Article: Top 5 Benefits Of Saliva Testing At Your Dentist

Burning mouth syndrome

When your mouth does not have enough saliva to stay wet, you may experience burning mouth syndrome.

Dry mouth-related symptoms in the rest of the body

Depending on the cause of this condition, it can also cause other symptoms outside your mouth.

Some of these include;

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Constipation
  • Dry, itchy eyes
  • Frequent coughing
  • Dry nose or throat
  • Stiffness and joint pains
  • Reduced sense of smell
  • Feeling unwell
  • Recurring vaginal thrush infection

Diagnosis of dry mouth syndrome

To determine the cause of your dry mouth, your doctor will need to review your medical history and any medication you are on. They will then proceed to conduct a physical examination to check your mouth. In some cases, the doctor may need to perform a blood test, imaging scans of your salivary glands and tests that measure the amount of saliva you are producing to identify the cause.

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Savina Clinic – Dental & Implantology Centres are friendly, state-of-the-art practices in Malta and Gozo dedicated to comprehensive quality dental care. Savina Dental is an innovative dental practice in Malta and prides itself on the high-quality customer service, low waiting room times, attention to detail and the advanced dental technology at their disposal.

Joseph Xuereb
Principal Dental Surgeon & Owner of Savina Dental Clinics, Dr Joseph Xuereb BChD (Hons), MFGDP(UK), MGDS RCS(Eng), FFGDP RCS(UK), FICD is a general dental practitioner with a special interest in Implant and Restorative Dentistry. Dr Joseph & the teams' full biographical information can be found here.