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What is dry mouth?

Saliva, or spit as it’s sometimes called, has a really important role to play. In fact, your mouth can’t work properly without it. It helps keep your mouth moist; lubricates the food you eat to make it easier to swallow; begins the process of digestion; and keeps your mouth and teeth clean too.

It’s mainly made up of water, but also contains electrolytes, mucus and enzymes to help keep you healthy. It also has some antibacterial properties.

Saliva is produced by salivary glands in your mouth, and a dry mouth, or xerostomia to give it its medical name, happens when your salivary glands don’t make enough saliva. It can be down to a number of reasons, which we’ll cover in more detail below.

Having a dry mouth every so often is pretty normal, but if it’s constantly dry, it may be a sign of an underlying condition and it’s worth speaking to a doctor about.

Symptoms of a dry mouth

The symptoms of a dry mouth will depend on what is causing it. However, common symptoms that you may notice include:

  • A dry feeling in your mouth and throat
  • A sticky feeling in your mouth
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Problems chewing
  • Trouble speaking
  • Losing the ability to taste
  • A sore tongue
  • A sore throat
  • Mouth sores
  • Chapped or cracked lips
  • Being thirsty a lot of the time
  • Tooth decay
  • Irritated gums
  • A persistent cough
  • Oral thrush

You may only have a few of these symptoms, but often that is enough to get a dry mouth diagnosis.

What can a dry mouth be a symptom of?

There are many things that cause a persistent or sudden dry mouth. These include:

Medication side effect

One of the most common causes of a dry mouth is medication. Read the information leaflet that comes with the medication you’re taking to see if this is a possible cause, or speak to a GP, as they may be able to recommend an alternative. This includes antidepressants, antihistamines, beta-blockers, diuretics and some epilepsy medicines to name a few.

Dehydration

A dry mouth can be a sign of dehydration, where your body loses more fluid than it takes in. The condition can get serious if not treated. Read more about it here.

Breathing through your mouth

If you have a cold, or just a tendency to breath through your mouth rather than your nose, it can dry your mouth out.

Snoring

A dry mouth at night while sleeping may be caused by snoring or by breathing with your mouth open. Read more about snoring.

Sjögren's syndrome

Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease and one of its symptoms is a dry mouth and dry eyes. Your white blood cells mistakenly attack your healthy salivary and tear glands. Other symptoms to look out for include dry skin, a dry cough, joint pain, joint stiffness or swelling and fatigue.

Radiotherapy/Chemotherapy

Cancer treatments may result in damage of the salivary glands, leading to a dry mouth. With chemotherapy, normal saliva production will return when treatment stops. With radiotherapy, a dry mouth may be temporary or permanent.

Nerve damage

Nerve damage in the neck or head can lead to mouth dryness. The damage may stop the salivary glands from working properly.

Diabetes

If you have undiagnosed diabetes, or badly controlled diabetes, you may have a dry mouth. Other symptoms to look out for include excessive thirst, unintentional weight loss and blurred vision.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer disease is a chronic neurodegenerative disease and the most common cause of dementia. People with the condition are more prone to a dry mouth because they may not drink enough water, and it generally affects the older generation, who are more likely to have a dry mouth.

Anxiety

A dry mouth can occur when you feel stressed, nervous or upset.

Thyroid conditions

A dry mouth can be a symptoms of a thyroid problem.

A dry mouth may also be a result of:

  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • aging

This is not a full list of causes. Speak to a GP who can investigate the cause of your dry mouth.

What should you do if you have a dry mouth?

If you think that you may have an underlying condition causing your dry mouth, then it is a good idea to speak to a doctor for more advice and information.

With Push Doctor, you can see a GP online while you are at home, out and about or at work. You can do this from any device, such as a smartphone or laptop. The doctor will listen to your symptoms during a video consultation and recommend the right treatment that will ease your symptoms as quickly as possible.

They will be able to look into any medication you’re taking to see if that could be the cause, or investigate any underlying conditions you may have. Once the underlying condition is treated, your symptoms, in most cases, should clear up.

There are a few dry mouth home remedies that you can try too. You can, for example, chew sugar free gum because this stimulates saliva production, or suck on a hard boiled sweet. Make sure you take regular sips of water too, to keep yourself hydrated. You can also cut down on alcohol or caffeinated drinks, as they can lead to dehydration.

Medication for dry mouth

Gels, sprays and lozenges are available that may help with your dry mouth. Speak to a pharmacist or doctor about which is most suitable for you.

If other methods do not work, a doctor may prescribe a saliva substitute called pilocarpine hydrochloride. It stimulates your glands to produce more saliva. It does have some side effects, which a doctor will explain to you before prescribing any medication.

How can Push Doctor help?

You can see a doctor about your dry mouth at a time that suits you. Our doctors are available from 6am to 11pm, seven days a week. They can offer you the diagnosis, advice and treatment you may need. They can also refer you to a specialist for further investigation and tests, if needed.