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Most of us don’t think about the role that saliva plays in our oral health — until we don’t have enough saliva. If your mouth has ever felt as parched as a desert, then you know how annoying and painful dry mouth can be. There are many causes of dry mouth, some temporary and others chronic. If you suffer from it, you may be at risk for certain dental conditions.

What Is the Role of Saliva?

Saliva, produced by your salivary glands, lubricates and cleanses your mouth of food particles and bacteria. Saliva also contains important digestive enzymes that act on the food you’re chewing to start the digestive process. Without sufficient saliva flow, chewing, speaking and swallowing is difficult, and you may lose your ability to taste properly.

What Are the Causes of Dry Mouth?

Dry mouth also called xerostomia, is not a disease in and of itself. Dry mouth is actually a symptom of a condition that prevents the salivary glands from producing enough saliva. Stress, nervousness and dehydration can cause temporary dry mouth. Additionally, according to the Academy of General Dentistry, there are over 400 prescriptions and over-the-counter medications that cause dry mouth, such as antidepressants, pain-killers, sinus medication and diuretics. It’s always wise to check your medications for this side effect.

As you age, you may notice a reduction in saliva flow. Older adults often take medications and undergo treatments such as chemotherapy that cause the condition. Other procedures and conditions that damage the salivary glands and cause dry mouth are radiation treatment to the neck region, oral-cavity damage, cancer of the salivary glands and the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome.

What Dental Problems Are Caused by Dry Mouth?

If your mouth is frequently dry, you are more at risk for getting cavities. With dry mouth, you don’t have enough saliva to neutralize acids in your mouth or wash away organisms. This dry environment can contribute to bacterial growth, and plaque builds up faster, which is a perfect recipe for tooth decay. You can also lose the benefit of protective proteins and the ions in saliva that help with tooth remineralization.

You also may be more vulnerable to mouth sores and infections due to dry mouth. One common fungal infection from which many people suffer is candidiasis, sometimes called oral thrush. This painful condition can cause bad breath and makes tasting and swallowing difficult. Those who wear partial or full dentures are sometimes more prone to oral thrush.

How Do I Treat Dry Mouth?

Relief from dry mouth is usually temporary, but there are a number of treatments that you can try. Drinking plenty of water, chewing sugarless gum, sucking on sugar-free lozenges and using over-the-counter moisture replacement products will provide some relief. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, smoking, salty and dry foods and acidic foods such as tomatoes, oranges and grapefruits. Also, limit your intake of carbonated sodas and sports drinks, which have a high acid content.