Dry mouth does not rank very high on the list of items people worry about, but when it comes to dental health, dry mouth can considerably contribute to dental health problems.
What causes dry mouth?
Dry mouth, known as xerostamia, occurs when there is not enough saliva being produced to keep the mouth wet. You’ve probably experienced it when waking up in the morning- in fact, the main reason for ‘morning breath’ is that saliva production tends to slow when we sleep, meaning bacteria is not being rinsed away . Beyond natural sleep patterns, many medications can cause dry mouth. Over 400 commonly prescribed medications have dry mouth listed as a possible side effect; these include antihistamines, antidiarrheals, analgesics, and anti-anxiety medications. Diseases like diabetes, disorders of the salivary glands, arthritis, and lupus can also contribute to dry mouth. Since the elderly tend to be on more medications and have more overall health issues than younger adults, they are at the greatest risk for dry mouth.
Why is dry mouth harmful?
Saliva is your body’s natural defense against food residue and debris as well as harmful bacteria. When your salivary glands are working as they should, the constant wash of saliva moving through your mouth and over your teeth helps keep harmful bacteria from settling in and causing trouble. Saliva also helps to neutralize acids in your mouth that can lead to cavities, as well as constantly coating your teeth with phosphorus and calcium. These substances help your enamel stay strong by allowing remineralization, a sort of self-repair process undertaken by enamel. Enamel can’t really be regrown or replaced once it’s worn away, but providing your teeth with the tools they need for remineralization, you help fight the process of damaging and wearing away your protective enamel.
A lack of saliva also allows bacteria to take root and begin burrowing in to your teeth. Bacteria can’t gain a hold on our teeth if they are swallowed or rinsed away. When bacteria are allowed to attach to teeth, they multiply extremely quickly. A layer of bacteria makes it easier for additional bacteria to attach themselves to the area, and it only takes a short time for a visible layer of plaque to form. In addition, your saliva is capable of neutralizing or killing harmful bacteria before they get a chance to do any damage. Who knew your spit was so talented?
What can you do about dry mouth?
If you suffer from dry mouth, it’s important to nail down the cause- see your doctor and/or dentist to figure out exactly why it’s happening. If your xerostamia is due to necessary medications or another unavoidable condition, it’s important to know how to keep it under control. One of the most important things you can do is to stay hydrated- even people whose salivary glands work perfectly well don’t produce as much saliva when they’re dehydrated. Sip on water throughout the day and avoid acidic, sugary drinks like soda or fruit juice. These beverages become much more harmful without the benefit of saliva to counteract the sugar and acid. Sugar-free gum is a great tool in the fight against dry mouth- chewing stimulates the saliva glands, and many sugar-free gums carry additional ingredients to fight gum disease or help whiten teeth. Lastly, avoid smoking and alcohol, as these behaviors lead to dehydration and can cause dry mouth even if you’re otherwise perfectly healthy.