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Dry mouth

Many factors can produce and lead to dry mouth. It’s very common if you’re feeling dehydrated or anxious, but if it persists it may be indicative of an underlying condition.

  • Often caused by complications of the salivary glands
  • It’s a common side effect of medication 
  • The underlying cause needs to be treated in most cases

If you are concerned about dry mouth, our online video consultation service is available from 9.30am - 4.30pm, five days a week. Our clinicians can issue advice, referral to specialists and prescriptions for treatment, where required. 

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Possible causes

There are three main categories that causes of dry mouth can be split into: factors related to habit, treatment and underlying conditions.

Habitual causes

Certain habits may contribute to the development of dry mouth. Breathing through the mouth overnight, if your nose is blocked, for instance, can make the mouth drier. Not drinking sufficient fluids and dehydration may also result in dry mouth. 

Treatment-related causes

Dry mouth is a common side effect of the following medications:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Antiepileptic drugs
  • Beta-blockers
  • Diuretics

Damage to the saliva glands may also occur if you’re undergoing radiotherapy.

Underlying conditions

There are various medical conditions that can cause dry mouth.  Common examples include: 

  • HIV and AIDS
  • Diabetes
  • Sjogren’s syndrome (an immune disorder that affects parts of the body that produce saliva, such as the mouth)
  • Anaemia

It isn’t always clear why these conditions can lead to dry mouth. HIV can cause HIV-associated salivary disease which swells the glands and affects saliva production, while high-blood sugar levels in diabetics may manifest as dry mouth, but why this is the case hasn’t been determined.

Diagnosing the cause of dry mouth

A doctor will look to establish more of a picture in terms of how your dry mouth developed, how long it’s persisted for and how severe it is. They may ask you if you are currently taking any medication, and whether you have recently changed dosages. 

A clinician will also want to assess if there’s any tenderness, or other issues that could be caused by a change in the function of the salivary glands. Tooth decay can sometimes indicate dry mouth, as healthy saliva production helps to wash away food debris in the teeth.

Although unlikely, there are a number of tests that a doctor may choose to perform. One possible test is salivary flow rate, which assesses the amount of saliva that can be produced in a certain amount of time. An understanding of a patient’s medical history and a physical examination will usually suffice for a diagnosis, however.

You can speak to one of our doctors about dry mouth and its symptoms via our online video consultation service from 9.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday. 

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Types of Treatment

How is dry mouth treated?

In most cases, treatment aims to address the underlying cause. This may involve changing the dosage of a drug, if dry mouth is a side effect for example, or looking to treat the condition, in the event of anxiety and dehydration, for instance.

If there’s no underlying cause in particular to treat, a doctor will provide some practical measures to alleviate symptoms of dry mouth. Potential recommendations may include:

  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and acidic beverages; alcohol can damage tissue in the mouth, while acidic drinks can erode the teeth - another symptom associated with dry mouth.
  • Avoiding sweets or gum that are high in sugar can also help with erosion, and in turn, dry mouth.
  • Taking frequent sips of water or sucking on ice cubes help to keep the mouth hydrated, or eating foods with a high volume of water, such as watermelon.

If these practical measures are ineffective, a doctor may prescribe you with stimulants. Pilocarpine is a medication which can be used to stimulate the salivary glands, so that more saliva is produced. 

Pilocarpine can often produce side effects such as dizziness or sweating, especially to begin with. They do however usually pass once the body becomes accustomed to the medication. Pilocarpine isn’t widely used, but it can be useful if other treatment options haven’t worked. 

Dry mouth is not usually reflective of a serious underlying condition. It typically only occurs when the body is dehydrated, or when someone breathes through their mouth while sleeping. It can also be an indication that the medication you are taking is causing side effects, or that you have an underlying condition that needs to be treated. 

Our GPhC-registered clinicians are available for online consultations about dry mouth. You can arrange to speak with them about symptoms, referrals for treatment or prescriptions between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to have dry mouth for?

Dry mouth isn’t typically a chronic condition; the amount of time it lasts for depends on what’s causing it. Chronic dry mouth usually functions as a side effect of medication that’s been taken over a significant period. In these circumstances, it will persist until an alternative medication is found or the dosage is changed.

Is dry mouth serious?

Dry mouth doesn’t tend to be serious; it’s a very common symptom stemming from various factors. It can however point towards a more serious condition, such as HIV or diabetes, although dry mouth isn’t likely to be the only symptom of these conditions.

Can I get treatment for dry mouth?

You don’t usually need treatment or dry mouth, as it’s often a temporary symptom that resolves itself. However, if you’ve taken practical measures to alleviate dry mouth and it still persists, without an identifiable underlying cause, there are medications a doctor can prescribe to stimulate the salivary glands.

How can I prevent dry mouth?

Dry mouth can manifest as a physical indication of nerves or anxiety, and in these cases there isn’t much that can be done to prevent it.

Staying hydrated will help to prevent dehydration, and avoiding caffeinated drinks, as well as alcohol and acidic beverages, may also help to reduce the likelihood of it developing. 

Can I speak to a doctor about dry mouth?

Yes, You can contact one of our clinicians using our online video consultation service. One of our registered clinicians will be able to offer input on how to alleviate your dry mouth, and clarify treatment options. They’re available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020

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