That parched feeling you get after a long workout or full night of sleep isn’t exactly fun—but it’s totally normal. Luckily, a tall glass of water quickly soothes your sticky, dry mouth.
If you feel like your mouth is constantly dry, though, that’s another story. “Dry mouth” is an actual health condition—and, in addition to being uncomfortable, it can have some undesirable effects.
“It is also one of the leading causes for cavities, bad breath, and other oral infections like candidiasis,” says Dr. Heather Kunen, D.D.S., M.S., dentist and co-founder of Beam Street.
But what’s behind your cotton mouth—and how can you moisten things up?
What is dry mouth?
Also known as xerostomia, dry mouth is caused by a lack of saliva, which helps protect your oral and dental health by keeping your mouth moist.
“Our saliva contains nutrients and immune cells that help ward off invading pathogens,” says Kunen. “It is of paramount importance to our oral health that proper salivary flow is maintained.”
Saliva is also an important player in our digestion, because it helps moisten and break down food, adds Dr. Nammy Patel, D.D.S, dentist, owner of Green Dentistry in San Francisco, and author of Age with Style: Your Guide to a Youthful Smile & Healthy Living.
Dry mouth “occurs when salivary glands in your mouth don’t produce enough saliva, causing a parched or dry feeling,” says Patel.
If your body does not produce enough saliva and you end up with dry mouth, you’ll notice symptoms like:
- Dryness and stickiness in your mouth
- Thick and stringy saliva
- Bad breath
- Difficulty chewing, speaking, and swallowing
- Dry or sore throat
- Dry or grooved tongue
- Excessive thirst
- Cracked lips
- A changed sense of taste
- Problems wearing dentures
What causes dry mouth?
A Sahara-like mouth can be caused by a whole slew of things, but perhaps the most common is medication. In fact, according to Patel, all of the following medications can contribute to dry mouth:
- Anticholinergics: These are medications used for allergies, Parkinson’s, asthma, and more.
- Incontinence and overactive bladder meds: Dry mouth is such a common side effect of these drugs that it’s actually the number one reason folks stop taking them.
- Antihistamines: Used for allergies and asthma, everything from Allegra to Zyrtec can leave you with a dry mouth.
- Parkinson’s medications
- Antidepressants: A specific class of these drugs, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), in particular, often cause dry mouth.
- Stimulants: Medications like Adderall used for ADHD cause dry mouth in up to 35 percent of people who take them.
- Anxiety medications
- Diuretics: These are typically used for the treatment of high blood pressure, edema of the legs, or heart failure.
- Beta-blockers: These drugs are used to treat high blood pressure.
In addition to various drugs, certain medical conditions—such as diabetes, neurological conditions, and autoimmune conditions like Sjogren’s Syndrome—may all also cause dry mouth,” says Kunen.
Certain lifestyle factors can contribute, as well. “Diets that are high in salt and sugar can lead to dry mouth,” says Kunen. “Alcohol and tobacco are also culprits.” Super-dry foods—like crackers, toast, cookies, dry breads, dry proteins, and dried fruit—can make dry mouth worse, but perhaps the most common contributor of all? Caffeine.
How do you treat dry mouth?
If you suspect you have dry mouth, schedule a visit with your dentist. “Xerostomia can be officially diagnosed by your dentist after clinical observation or by physical measurement of how much saliva is being produced over a given amount of time,” Kunen explains.
The first line of defense is always prioritizing hydration. (Kunen recommends sipping water as frequently as possible.)
You’ll also want to see your dentist every three months in order to monitor the condition’s potential impact on your oral health, Patel adds.
That said, if you suspect your medication may behind your parched mouth, talk to your doctor. “If your doctor believes your dry mouth is caused by medication, they may recommend a change or adjustment,” Kunen adds.
Certain over-the-counter oral care products can also help, including:
- Saliva substitutes: These liquids—which are designed to provide temporary relief from dry mouth—typically contain xylitol, carboxymethylcellulose, or hydroxyethyl cellulose, Patel says.
- Mouthwashes: Again, xylitol is a hero here. Just avoid any rinses that contain alcohol, which can be drying, Patel says. (Try Spry Mountain Mint Alcohol-Free Mouthwash.)
How To Keep Your Mouth Moist
In addition to visiting your dentist regularly, there are a number of other ways to keep your saliva flowing and your mouth happy and healthy. A few that Kunen and Patel recommend:
Chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free hard candies that contain xylitol. This stimulates salivary glands to produce saliva,” says Kunen. Just note that too much xylitol can upset your stomach, so keep an eye on how much you consume—and how it makes you feel.
Sip water regularly. “Staying hydrated is the best way to prevent dry mouth,” Kunen says. In addition to limiting caffeine and alcohol, make sure to drink plenty of water.
Recent research suggests women should drink at least 11.5 cups per day while men should consume at least 15.5 cups. That said, “if you are in a hotter climate or tend to exercise more, you may need more water to stay hydrated and to keep your mouth properly hydrated,” Kunan says.
Cut down on processed foods. To avoid excess sodium, which can dry you out, stick to unprocessed foods as well as fruits and vegetables as often as possible.
Adjust the way you breathe. When you breathe through your nose, you add moisture to dry air with every inhale. This can prevent your mouth and throat from drying out.
Use a humidifier. To keep your mouth from drying out you sleep, add moisture to the air of your bedroom at night with a humidifier.
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