What causes a dry mouth?
A lack of saliva makes your mouth feel dry. There are many different causes of dry mouth, including dehydration, mouth-breathing and smoking, as well as some medications, medical conditions, and older age.
What is the role of saliva?
The saliva in our mouths has many important functions. These include:
- Washing away food and debris;
- Lubricating the delicate oral tissues;
- Neutralising acids that cause tooth decay or enamel erosion;
- Protecting against infections; and
- Helping us to taste food.
What role does dry mouth play in the development of periodontal (gum) disease and tooth decay?
Saliva acts as a natural mouthwash to clear food and bacteria away. When there isn’t enough saliva, its protective functions don’t work as well, which makes it easier for harmful bacterial plaque to build up on the teeth and gums. These bacteria are responsible for both periodontal (gum) disease and tooth decay.
Dry mouth does not cause gum disease, but with a dry mouth, you get more plaque build-up on your teeth. The increased bulk of plaque bacteria causes gingivitis (inflamed and bleeding gums). In roughly 30% of the population, chronic gingivitis can lead to periodontitis or destructive gum disease.
Patients with a dry mouth are also at a higher risk of tooth decay. Certain bacteria in plaque use sugar and carbohydrate from your diet to produce acids, which dissolve the enamel and cause decay. Healthy saliva flow helps to minimise this by washing away the bacteria and neutralising these acids, but in those with a dry mouth, these protective features are lost.
What treatments are available for dry mouth?
There are several lifestyle changes which can improve the symptoms of dry mouth, such as:
- Carrying a drink bottle containing non-carbonated water to sip throughout the day;
- Avoiding/reducing alcohol, caffeine and smoking;
- Chewing sugar-free chewing gum or using sugar-free lozenges to increase saliva flow; and
- Using over-the-counter products formulated for dry-mouth, such as lubricating gels and mouthwashes.
In more severe cases of dry mouth, additional tests and/or treatments may be necessary.
How do I reduce my risk of periodontal disease and/or tooth decay?
The best way to prevent periodontal disease and tooth decay is by maintaining excellent oral hygiene. This is especially important for those with a dry mouth. For more information, see our website section “Caring for your teeth”, or ask your dental hygienist.
If you think you suffer from a dry mouth, you should discuss this with your periodontist or dentist.