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Dry mouth is a significant side effect of many medications, and one of many disagreeable symptoms caused by autoimmune diseases such as lupus and scleroderma. Dry mouth causes discomfort, bad breath, and gum disease, but fortunately it is easy to treat.

Dry mouth, a condition that the medical literature terms xerostomia, is a common complication of poorly controlled type 2 diabetes and autoimmune conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and Sjögren's syndrome.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy often cause dry mouth. It is also a frequent side effect of medications used to treat anxiety, depression, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, coughs, cold, stuffy nose, and allergies. Older people are especially likely to get dry mouth, but this is because of medication use, not because of their age.

Dry mouth is aggravated by smoking, drinking, and smoking marijuana, and an especially unpleasant form of dry mouth known as "meth mouth" frequently occurs in people who use methamphetamines. People who have trouble breathing through their noses at night or who have sleep apnea may suffer "morning mouth" from overnight desiccation of the lips, gums, and mucous membranes lining the mouth.

Dry Mouth Isn't Just Unpleasant

People who have dry mouth don't just suffer bad breath and dry and chapped lips. A dry mouth is especially at risk for infection. Without a constant flow of saliva over the teeth, cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans bacteria can accumulate and eat holes through the enamel. The yeast infection Candida albicans can grow on the tongue and palate, causing an unpleasant condition known as thrush. And dry mouth makes eating and talking more difficult.

Dry mouth interferes with good nutrition.

One of the ways the body manages to get complete protein (the full complement of essential and non-essential amino acids) from food is by constantly digesting its own saliva. In fact, more than 50% of the protein absorbed by the body is circulated through the salivary tract, storing essential amino acids so the body does not have to break down muscle tissue and white blood cells to get the building blocks of proteins to keep vital organs in good repair.

When there isn't enough saliva production, the body has to get all of its amino acids from protein foods, and these protein foods have to be eaten each and every day. Oddly enough, dry mouth can result in muscle loss.

What Causes Dry Mouth?

Medications for allergies, asthma, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease, as well as cigarettes, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines, interfere with the signals sent by the parasympathetic nervous system that tell the salivary glands to release saliva. Except in the case of "meth mouth," when the medication or recreational drug is discontinued, the salivary glands resume normal function and dry mouth disappears, although halitosis may persist until the bacterial film that causes it is removed from the gums and tongue. The problem is that many people who use these medications have to have them on an ongoing basis.

When dry mouth is caused by autoimmune disease, however, the underlying problem usually is the destruction of the salivary glands by the immune system itself. When this happens, dry mouth becomes a permanent condition that requires life-long oral health care.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Dysphagia Section, Oral Care Study Group, Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC)/International Society of Oral Oncology (ISOO), Raber-Durlacher JE, Brennan MT, Verdonck-de Leeuw IM, Gibson RJ, Eilers JG, Waltimo T, Bots CP, Michelet M, Sollecito TP, Rouleau TS, Sewnaik A, Bensadoun RJ, Fliedner MC, Silverman S Jr, Spijkervet FK. Swallowing dysfunction in cancer patients. Support Care Cancer. 2012 Mar. 20(3):433-43. doi: 10.1007/s00520-011-1342-2. Epub 2011 Dec 29. Review.
  • Shetty SR, Bhowmick S, Castelino R, Babu S. Drug induced xerostomia in elderly individuals: An institutional study. Contemp Clin Dent. 2012 Apr. 3(2):173-5. doi: 10.4103/0976-237X.96821
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