Leading dental and pharmacy organizations are teaming up to promote oral health and raise public awareness of dry mouth, a side effect commonly caused by taking prescription and over-the-counter medications. More than 500 medications can contribute to oral dryness, including antihistamines (for allergy or asthma), antihypertensive medications (for blood pressure), decongestants, pain medications, diuretics and antidepressants. In its most severe form, dry mouth can lead to extensive tooth decay, mouth sores and oral infections, particularly among the elderly.
Nearly half of all Americans regularly take at least one prescription medication daily, including many that produce dry mouth, and more than 90 percent of adults over age 65 do the same. Because older adults frequently use one or more of these medications, they are considered at significantly higher risk of experiencing dry mouth.
The American Dental Association (ADA), Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) and the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) are collaborating to expand awareness of the impact of medications on dry mouth, a condition known to health professionals as xerostomia.
With regular saliva production, your teeth are constantly bathed in a mineral-rich solution that helps keep your teeth strong and resistant to decay. While saliva is essential for maintaining oral health and quality of life, at least 25 million Americans have inadequate salivary flow or composition, and lack the cleansing and protective functions provided by this important fluid.
“Each day, a healthy adult normally produces around one-and-a-half liters of saliva, making it easier to talk, swallow, taste, digest food and perform other important functions that often go unnoticed,” notes Dr. Fares Elias, immediate past president, Academy of General Dentistry. “Those not producing adequate saliva may experience some common symptoms of dry mouth.”
Signs and symptoms
At some point, most people will experience the short-term sensation of oral dryness because of nervousness, stress or just being upset. This is normal and does not have any long-term consequences. But chronic cases of dry mouth persist for longer periods of time. Common symptoms include trouble eating, speaking and chewing, burning sensations or a frequent need to sip water while eating.
“Dry mouth becomes a problem when symptoms occur all or most of the time and can cause serious problems for your oral health,” explains Dr. Matthew Messina, ADA consumer advisor. “Drying irritates the soft tissues in the mouth, which can make them inflamed and more susceptible to infection.”
According to Dr. Messina, who practices general dentistry in the Cleveland area, without the cleansing and shielding effects of adequate saliva flow, tooth decay and periodontal (gum) disease become much more common. “Constant dryness and the lack of protection provided by saliva may contribute to bad breath. Dry mouth can make full dentures become less comfortable to wear because there is no thin film of saliva to help them adhere properly to oral tissues,” he adds. “Insufficient saliva can also result in painful denture sores, dry and cracked lips and increased risks of oral infection.”
Once considered an inevitable part of aging, dry mouth is now commonly associated with certain medications and autoimmune conditions such as Sjogren’s syndrome. Both of these can reduce salivary production or alter its composition, but experts agree that the primary cause of dry mouth is the use of medications.
Radiation treatment for head and neck cancer is also an important cause of severe dry mouth. The treatment can produce significant damage to the salivary glands, resulting in diminished saliva production and extreme dry mouth in many cases.
“Saliva plays an important role in maintaining oral health,” says Dr. Donald Clem, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. “With decreased saliva flow, we can see an increase in plaque accumulation and the incidence and severity of periodontal diseases.”
How to relieve dry mouth
Individuals with dry mouth should have regular dental checkups for evaluation and treatment. “Be sure to carry an up-to-date medication list at all times, and tell your dentist what medications you are taking and other information about your health at each appointment,” advises Mr. Thomas Menighan, executive vice president and Chief Executive Officer, American Pharmacists Association. “In some cases, a different medication can be provided or your dosage modified to alleviate dry mouth symptoms. Talk to your pharmacist if you have any questions regarding your medication.”
Increasing fluid intake, chewing sugarless gum, taking frequent sips of water or sucking on ice chips can also help relieve dry mouth symptoms. Avoiding tobacco and intake of caffeine, alcohol and carbonated beverages may also help those with the condition. Your dentist may recommend using saliva substitutes or oral moisturizers to keep your mouth wet. Your local pharmacist is also a helpful source for information on products to help you manage dry mouth.