Dry Mouth: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 14, 2022

Dry mouth is when you don’t have enough saliva in your mouth. It can make eating and talking more difficult and can also cause bad breath. 

It was once thought to be part of aging, though certain medications and other factors are now known to cause it, as well.

In this article, I’ll cover what dry mouth is and what can cause it. I’ll also go over some treatments to help relieve dry mouth.

What is Dry Mouth?

Being nervous, stressed, or upset can cause dry mouth, which almost everyone has experienced before. However, some people experience dry mouth, also called xerostomia, on a frequent or chronic basis. 

A consistently dry mouth is uncomfortable and can lead to some serious problems. It can also be a sign of certain conditions or diseases. 

Saliva plays an important role in the following functions:

  • Digesting food
  • Preventing tooth decay
  • Controlling growth of bacteria and fungi in the mouth
  • Making chewing and swallowing possible

Without enough saliva, you are at risk for tooth decay, infections, bad breath, and not absorbing enough nutrition. 

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Symptoms

Symptoms of dry mouth include:

  • Dry sticky feeling in the mouth
  • Cracked lips
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste
  • Feeling thirsty
  • Burning sensation in the mouth
  • Trouble speaking
  • Trouble chewing and swallowing
  • Dry, rough tongue
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Dental problems

Causes of Dry Mouth

You have glands in your mouth that create your saliva. When these glands aren’t working correctly you can have a dry mouth. 

There are several reasons why your glands may not be producing enough saliva, including the following.  

Dehydration

Dehydration could cause your mouth to be dry. It occurs when your body doesn’t have enough water to function properly. 

Mild to moderate dehydration symptoms include:

  • Dry and sticky mouth
  • Not urinating often
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Headache
  • Feeling thirsty
  • Muscle cramps

More severe dehydration symptoms include:

  • Dark and foul-smelling urine
  • Confusion or irritability
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Fast breathing and heartbeat
  • Sunken eyes
  • Shock

Dehydration can be caused by being sick and experiencing conditions such as diarrhea or vomiting, sweating profusely in hot weather, not drinking enough fluids, or taking a diuretic. 

Medication Side Effects

There are some medications you may be taking that are causing you to have dry mouth. It is a common side effect of many drugs.

Over 400 medications cause the salivary glands to produce less saliva. 

Examples of medications that can make your mouth feel dry include: 

Chemotherapy and radiation can also slow down saliva production.

Stress and Aging

During stress, anxiety, or nervousness, a person’s mouth can feel parched.

This is a classic symptom of a person about to give a presentation to a group of people. Usually, this type of dry mouth is temporary and is relieved after the stress is over. 

Aging itself does not cause dry mouth. However, dry mouth is common in older adults because they tend to have more health conditions and take more medications that may cause it. 

Some health problems that can cause dry mouth include:

  • Diabetes
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Injury to the nerves controlling saliva production

Mouth Breathing

Mouth breathing is sometimes a sign of something wrong​​ with your sinuses, tonsils, or adenoids or could just be a habit.

Our bodies were not designed for breathing through the mouth but rather breathing through the nose. Always breathing through your mouth can lead to a mouth that tends to be dry, but not because there is a problem with your salivary glands. 

See your medical provider if you are a mouth breather to determine what could be the cause. 

Smoking or Vaping

Smoking and vaping release environmental toxins that can be harmful for your body and mouth.  

Vaping or e-cigs have been advertised as being a safe alternative to smoking, however, current research shows that vaping exposes you to many chemicals that are not only harmful for your body but your mouth as well. 

The chemicals you may be exposed to include:

  • Nicotine
  • Formaldehyde
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Nitrosamines
  • Heavy metals (e.g. nickel, cadmium, chromium, lead)
  • Arsenic
  • Silica

Exposure to these chemicals increases your risk for oral cancer, periodontitis, inflammation, and break down of the nerves. 

Treating Dry Mouth

Treating your dry mouth depends on what is causing it to be dry. 

If your mouth is dry, see your dentist or primary medical provider and they can help you determine the underlying cause. 

Home care

The following are some tips you can do on your own to help moisten your dry mouth:

  • Frequently sip on water and sugar free drinks
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, and some sodas
  • Sip water throughout your meals
  • Chew sugar free gum or suck sugar free candy
  • Cut down on tobacco and alcohol use
  • Stay away from salty or spicy foods 
  • Suck on ice chips or frozen grapes
  • Try to breathe through your nose instead of your mouth
  • Use a humidifier at night while you sleep
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) artificial saliva sprays and mouth washes

Medical care

Depending on on the cause, you primary medical professional may:

  • Change your current medications or adjust the dosage
  • Write a prescriptions for a medication that can help your salivary glands produce saliva
  • Suggest you use use artificial saliva

Prevention

To help prevent yourself from getting dry mouth:

  • Visit your dentist every six months for a check-up
  • Gently brush your teeth twice a day
  • Keep yourself hydrated
  • Avoid tobacco and vaping
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol
  • Floss at least once a day
  • Avoid sugary drinks
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When To Seek Medical Attention

If you have a dry mouth and also experience the following, contact your healthcare professional:

  • Dry mouth that doesn’t go away
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Burning sensation in your mouth
  • White patches in your mouth

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Frequently Asked Questions

How do you get rid of dry mouth?
First, you may need to treat any underlying condition causing your dry mouth. Other ways you can moisten your mouth are frequently sipping on water throughout the day and during meals, sucking on sugar free candy or chewing sugar free gum, using OTC artificial saliva sprays or mouthwashes.
Is dry mouth a serious symptom?
Having dry mouth puts you at a much higher risk for oral and dental problems. It could also be a sign of a medical issue that is causing your dry mouth.
Why do you get a dry mouth?
Your dry mouth may be caused by a problem with your salivary glands, a medication you are taking, dehydration, a medical condition, or another cause.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.

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