How dry mouth impacts your oral health
The five syllable word is xerostomia. Somewhere around a third of our population has at least some dry mouth. Slightly more in older people and slightly more in women.
Why is this important to your dental health? Well, the mouth is meant to be wet. It enables free movement of your tongue and cheeks, helps with chewing, swallowing, tasting and speaking. And saliva is more than just water. It contains several chemicals that help support oral health including enzymes that help with digestion and antimicrobials helping control bacteria. When saliva flow is decreased, more aggressive bacteria and fungi are able to thrive in the mouth. Thus, without good saliva flow, oral and systemic health can be compromised.
When there is less saliva, there is often more tooth decay especially on hard to reach root surfaces, more gum disease leading to tooth loss, and other oral infections. Saliva works as a lubricant helping hold in dentures and those with dentures have trouble keeping dentures secured. People with dry mouth often consume sweet or acidic drinks to help leading to more tooth decay.
What causes saliva flow to decrease? There are many causes including medications, increasing aging, illness, radiation therapy for head and neck cancer, mouth breathing, and salivary gland disorders. Many medications for blood pressure, gastric reflux, depression, and diuretics, among others, as a side effect, decrease saliva flow. As the body ages, the flow of saliva often decreases. When radiation for cancer therapy is near the saliva glands, they can be affected as a side effect. Mouth breathing from sinus issues and allergies forces more air passing through the mouth, drying the oral tissues. Often it is a combination of these causes.
What can we do? There are saliva substitutes of various types that can replace the saliva. They only last so long, so repeated usage is necessary and they normally don’t last the night. Sugarless gum can be used stimulate natural saliva flow. And there are several systemic medications that can be considered and usually these would be discussed with a physician to minimize any interactions with other medications that are taken.
And, of course, if you have dry mouth, it becomes more important to become an olympic level brusher and flosser and keep your mouth clean. Food debris and bacteria can allow more of the development of decay and infections. The dental office can assess current effectiveness and suggest modifications in brushing, flossing, timing of oral hygiene, diet, and can suggest the various therapies available to help.