Reasons for chronic dry mouth range from using toothpastes and mouthwashes containing substances that dry out oral tissues, allergies, sleep apnea and abnormal functioning of salivary glands. Chronic sinus conditions that make breathing through the nose difficult, smoking or chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol and taking medications that dehydrate body tissues are other common causes of dry mouth. Many people try to deal with dry mouth by chewing gum or sucking on breath mints. Unfortunately, these products usually contain many of the same ingredients found in toothpastes and mouthwashes that contribute to dry mouth.
In addition, a chronically dry mouth creates a stagnant, oxygen-deficient, oral environment promoting growth of anaerobic bacteria, the primary cause of tooth decay, gum disease and periodontitis. Allowing dry mouth conditions to continue not only increases the risk of dental problems but also encourages development of thrush, canker sores and abscesses.
What are Anaerobic Bacteria?
Your mouth cannot naturally cleanse itself of oral debris (food particles, mucous, dead skin) when saliva flow is insufficient. Anaerobic bacteria thrive in dry, airless mouths full of protein-rich debris, creating rapidly multiplying layers of a biofilm called plaque that sticks to teeth and demineralizes dental enamel unless removed by a professional dental cleaning.
Although research shows anaerobic bacteria–not sugar–causes cavities, many people continue to assume tooth decay is caused by eating too much sugar. Instead, it is the biofilm composed of anaerobic bacteria that erodes teeth enamel, promotes gum disease, produces sulfuric gases responsible for bad breath and may even reduce your ability to taste and smell properly.
How Saliva Protects Your Teeth and Mouth
Oral anaerobic bacteria cannot live in oxygenated conditions. Nor can they live where there are no proteins to consume. Saliva is necessary to prevent the mouth from being overwhelmed with anaerobes destructive to tooth enamel and gum tissue. In addition, saliva:
- Provides antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties that protect the mouth from teeth and gum disease
- Contains acid neutralizing substances that directly attack plaque, a common cause of periodontitis
- Contributes to the remineralization of tooth enamel by providing calcium and phosphorous
- Enhances your sense of smell and taste
Saliva also helps prevent plaque buildup, a film of bacteria that adheres to teeth and protects anaerobes lying underneath the film from being exposed to oxygen. Plaque needs eliminated each day by brushing, flossing and using an oxygenated, alcohol-free mouthwash or it will harden into a harmful substance called tartar, a strong biofilm causing extensive cavities, tooth loss and chronic halitosis. Tartar accumulating in spaces where teeth meet the gums may cause gingivitis, a gum disease indicated by bleeding, swollen, receding gums.
Treatment for Dry Mouth
Keeping your mouth clean and hydrated between regular visits to your dentist for cleanings and examinations are the best preventative measures to take for preventing teeth and gum diseases caused by a dry mouth. Treatment for dry mouth depends on what is making your mouth consistently dry. Common methods recommended by dentists for reducing dry mouth symptoms include:
- Limiting consumption of coffee, soda and other caffeinated drinks
- Chewing sugar-free gum or candies containing xylitol, a chemical promoting saliva flow
- Avoiding mouthwashes with alcohol (alcohol is a desiccant that naturally extracts fluids from tissues)
- Avoiding tobacco use (chewing and smoking)
- Drinking water at meals and in between meals
- Using nonprescription saliva substitutes (mouth sprays and rinses are available)
- Breathing through your nose only (nasal sprays and strips can help open clogged nasal passageways)
- Running a humidifier to add moisture to dry bedroom air at night
If dry mouth does not improve or worsens, visit your dentist or doctor for a thorough examination. Underlying medical problems may be causing chronic dry mouth, such as low blood pressure, diabetes, an autoimmune disease or systemic dehydration.