The DOs and DON’Ts of keeping your mouth comfortable and healthy.
Got saliva? OK, maybe that’s not going to catch on as a dental slogan, but the question is important for your health and well being. Saliva is the naturally beneficial fluid that keeps your mouth feeling moist and comfortable. It has many other important functions as well, including neutralizing acid in the mouth that could break down tooth enamel, washing away food particles that nourish harmful oral bacteria, and bringing cavity-fighting minerals to the teeth.
While most people experience dryness once in a while, some people have constant dry mouth. Why? For one thing, it’s a common side effect of many prescription and over-the-counter medications. It can also result from habits such as drinking alcohol and smoking. But no matter how it’s caused, the condition is uncomfortable—and potentially risky for your oral health. So what can you do about it? Here are some tips for dealing with dry mouth.
1) Do watch what you eat. Avoid salty and spicy foods.
Salty or spicy foods can irritate the soft gum tissue that lines your mouth. If you’re already suffering from a lack of saliva, the effect can be much worse. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy meals: Just opt for reduced-salt or mildly spicy options. When shopping, look carefully at the labels on prepared or canned foods to check their salt content. And when you’re dining out, pick dishes seasoned with milder ingredients, or ones that get their flavor from fruits and vegetables.
2) Don’t drink too much caffeine.
Caffeine, the stimulating ingredient in coffee, tea and many soft drinks, is a mild diuretic. That means it promotes the loss of fluids from the body—which is exactly what you don’t need if you have dry mouth. So, to enhance saliva production, try avoiding or limiting drinks with caffeine. Look carefully at the labels of sodas and so-called “energy” drinks: The amount of caffeine they contain may surprise you!
3) Do sip water throughout the day.
Drinking plenty of water is one of the best things you can do for your mouth—as well as your whole body. Water is the major ingredient in saliva, so staying hydrated helps you produce a good supply of this healthful fluid. Plus, water washes away leftover food residue in your mouth that oral bacteria thrive on, and dilutes the acids that can wear away tooth enamel. If the water’s fluoridated, it’s even better! Fluoride, a natural mineral, actually strengthens tooth enamel and helps fight decay.
4) Don’t smoke or use tobacco products of any kind.
Need one more reason to quit smoking? Dry mouth. Smoking—or using tobacco in any form—cuts down on the flow of saliva, along with its cavity-fighting antibodies. Tobacco use also gives you bad breath, stains your teeth, worsens gum disease—and makes you more than six times more likely to get oral cancer. This one’s a no-brainier: The sooner you quit using tobacco, the better for your health.
5) Do chew sugarless gum to stimulate saliva flow.
Dry mouth results from a decreased flow of saliva. Chewing sugarless gum can be a great way to stimulate a healthy saliva flow. In fact, the activity of gum chewing can increase saliva production by ten times! If gum’s not your thing, try sugar-free hard candies, mints or lozenges—but be sure to let them dissolve in your mouth rather than biting them, which could damage your teeth.
6) Don’t drink alcohol.
Even when it’s taken in moderate amounts, alcohol can irritate the soft tissues of the mouth. It’s also a diuretic, like caffeine, so it causes the body to lose water. That’s why many people wake up after a night out with a dried-out tongue and cottony mouth. If dry mouth is an issue for you, limit alcohol consumption or avoid it altogether. That goes for mouthwashes too: Choose ones that contain no alcohol.
7) Do use a humidifier at night.
Most people find comfortable indoor humidity levels range between 30-50%, but the air in many homes is often drier—especially in the winter time. Dry indoor air can aggravate many health problems, including dry skin, coughing, sinus congestion—and dry mouth. There are many different kinds of humidifiers, including evaporators, vaporizers and ultrasonic units. The most important thing is to keep them clean and filled with water so they can do their job properly.
8) Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about medications you are taking.
Many drugs, both prescription and non-prescription, have an unwanted side effect: They can cause dry mouth. These include certain medications used to treat cancer, high blood pressure, depression, asthma and allergies, along with many illicit drugs. Ask your doctor whether one or more of the medications you are taking could be causing dry mouth, and if you could benefit from trying a different drug.
9) Do ask your dentist to recommend products that can help.
There are a number of products, both prescription and over-the-counter, that can stimulate saliva production or act as a saliva substitute. “Artificial saliva” in the form of a rinse, lozenge or spray is available at most pharmacies. In addition to sugarless gum, prescription drugs to increase saliva production are available; ask your dentist if one of these could be right for you.
10) Do maintain optimum oral hygiene.
People who suffer from a mouth that’s constantly dry are at greater risk for tooth decay. That means it’s extra important for them to maintain an effective daily oral hygiene routine. This includes brushing twice each day with fluoride toothpaste and flossing once a day—and visiting the dentist regularly for professional cleanings and exams. Your dental team is the best resource for helping you manage this uncomfortable and potentially harmful condition; let them know if dry mouth becomes an issue for you.