Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

  • Medical Author:
    Steven B. Horne, DDS

    Dr. Steve Horne began his career at Brigham Young University obtaining his BA in English. He earned his Doctorate of Dental Surgery in 2007 from the University of Southern California where his pursuit for academic excellence landed him on the Dean's List. He was recognized for his superior clinical skills and invited to help teach other dental students in courses on restorative dentistry, prosthodontics, and tooth anatomy. During dental school, he provided dental care for underserved populations of Los Angeles and Orange County, Mexico, and Costa Rica with AYUDA. Following dental school, Dr. Horne entered active duty with the U.S. Army and practiced dentistry at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for four years. During this time, he was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, and received multiple Army Achievement Medals, the Army Commendation Medal, and served as Company Commander. Dr. Horne currently practices full time at Torrey Pines Dental Arts in La Jolla, California, as a general dentist. Dr. Horne is a member of the American Dental Association, the California Dental Association, and the Academy of General Dentistry. Dr. Horne is married to his wife, Christy, and they have a chocolate Labrador named Roscoe.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

View the Dry Mouth Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Slideshow

Dry Mouth Causes

Dry mouth is more than just feeling thirsty. You get it when your mouth makes very little saliva -- or even none at all. What little saliva you have might be thick and stringy. Saliva helps you taste food and drinks and it helps you digest food. It flushes food particles away from your teeth and helps prevent tooth decay. Another name for dry mouth is xerostomia.

More than 400 types of medications can cause dry mouth, including:

  • non-prescription drugs for allergies and cold symptoms, and
  • many prescription drugs for high blood pressure,
  • overactive bladder, and
  • mental health issues.

You can also get dry mouth after some medical treatments such as cancer radiation, which can hurt the glands that make saliva. Chemotherapy sometimes causes saliva to thicken and make the mouth feel dry.

Quick GuideOral Health Pictures Slideshow: Dry Mouth Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Oral Health Pictures Slideshow: Dry Mouth Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

What is dry mouth?

Dry mouth is a condition that results from a decreased volume of saliva in the mouth. Dry mouth is also called xerostomia. Xerostomia can make it difficult to speak, eat, and digest food and can lead to malnutrition. Extreme dry mouth and salivary gland dysfunction can produce significant anxiety, permanent mouth and throat disorders, and can impair a person's quality of life.

How common is dry mouth?

Dry mouth affects about 10% of all people and tends to be more prevalent in women than men. Disorders of saliva production affect elderly people and those who are taking prescription and nonprescription medications most frequently.

What are the benefits of saliva?

Saliva is an essential part of a healthy mouth and is often taken for granted. The lubricating properties of saliva provide comfort and help protect the oral tissues against ulcers, sores, and other frictional movements that accompany normal eating and speaking. Saliva neutralizes acids and helps defend against tooth decay, and bacterial, viral, or fungal threats. Saliva helps digest food and helps teeth in remineralization. Saliva is also a very essential contributor to a person's ability to taste, as it acts as a solvent for the taste stimuli. When saliva volume is insufficient, all of these functions are impaired.

What causes dry mouth?

There are many causes of dry mouth. Dry mouth most commonly occurs as a side effect of medications that cause decreased saliva production, including high blood pressure medications, antihistamines, antidepressants, diuretics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, narcotics, and many others. There are over 400 commonly used medications that can cause dry mouth. Other causes of dry mouth include dehydration, radiation treatments to treat cancerous tumors of the head and neck, salivary gland diseases, removal of salivary glands, diabetes, smoking, using chewing tobacco, hormonal imbalances, mouth breathing, sleep apnea, cystic fibrosis, mumps, and autoimmune disorders such as Sjögren's syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV/AIDS, and systemic lupus erythematosus. Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, are other risk factors for developing xerostomia. Salivary production can be decreased if a major salivary duct becomes blocked, such as from a salivary stone or infection. Dry mouth will often occur during pregnancy or breastfeeding due to dehydration and hormonal changes. Other risk factors include stress, anxiety, and depression. Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease often lead to dehydration, making a person constantly at risk for dry mouth. These along with stroke can cause a perception of dry mouth even if salivary function is adequate, due to the diminished ability to perceive oral sensations. Nerve damage or trauma to the head and neck can affect the nerves that provide sensation to the mouth and result in a feeling of dry mouth.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/11/2016

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