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Xerostomia: Causes, Treatment, and Effects on the Oral Cavity
April 12th, 2013 by Dr. Watson

Xerostomia, more commonly referred to as “dry mouth,” is a condition that thousands of patients experience every day. An individual that has xerostomia lacks sufficient saliva in the oral cavity, and consequently is more at risk for dental decay. Once aware of the presence of dry mouth and, similarly, of saliva’s important role in the oral cavity, extra care should be taken to provide moisture to the teeth and surrounding structures.  This article will identify symptoms of dry mouth, explain some common causes, and discuss treatment options available to patients.

The Roles of Saliva in the Oral Cavity
The benefits of a healthy salivary flow in the mouth are numerous. Saliva is essential to a healthy oral cavity, because it aids in the digestion of foods, contains minerals that are beneficial to the teeth, acts as a pH buffer, helps with speech and mastication (chewing), and has cleansing properties.

Saliva and Digestion
Salivary amylase, an enzyme or protein that aids in digestion, is actually the beginning of the digestive process. Amylase breaks apart complex chains of food particles, specifically carbohydrates, before they are compacted and swallowed. In the absence of salivary amylase, food is much more difficult to swallow.

Saliva and Cavity Prevention
In addition to the protein amylase, saliva also contains small amounts of the minerals calcium and fluoride. These mineral ions play an integral role in re-mineralization, which is the continuous process of re-depositing beneficial minerals into the enamel surface after it has been eroded. Many factors contribute to acid erosion including the presence of cariogenic (cavity-producing ) bacteria, fermentable carbohydrates in the diet (sugars that bacteria utilize for energy), and a low pH in the mouth. Without saliva to act as a pH buffer, and in the absence of the minerals contained in salivary fluid, the patient is at an increased risk for caries.

Saliva and Cleansing
Saliva provides the oral cavity with moisture, and is a medium that naturally breaks down and washes away food particles and plaque from the mouth. Without saliva, it is easier for plaque and bacteria to adhere to the surfaces of the teeth, aiding in the formation of carious lesions, or cavities. Patients with dry mouth have more difficulty breaking up food particles in the oral cavity and washing them away because they do not have as much lubrication as patients with a normal salivary flow.

What causes dry mouth?
A complete list of conditions that promote dry mouth in the oral cavity is beyond the scope of this article. However, several systemic and external factors are more definitively linked to a diminished salivary flow, and these are worth identifying. First, aging naturally decreases the flow of saliva to the oral cavity, and many patients who are elderly struggle with dry mouth. It is important for these patients to seek treatment, as many may also wear removable prostheses that may rub uncomfortably as a result of dry mouth.

Patients who have undergone radiation therapy as part of their treatment for chronic illnesses, such as cancer, might also experience dry mouth. These individuals should be especially vigilant with brushing and flossing, and should collaborate with their oral health care team in order to closely monitor the status of decay in the mouth during chemotherapeutic treatment.

Treatment Options for Dry Mouth
There are several ways of providing moisture to the oral cavity when salivary function is impaired. Chewing a sugar-free, ADA-approved gum can help stimulate the production of moisture in the mouth, and provide other short-term benefits due to the cavity-prohibiting sugar alcohols contained in many gums. A second way to prevent dry mouth from affecting the teeth is by using a special mouth rinse like Biotene, which is manufactured especially for patients with xerostomia. Alternative, prescription rinses, which may contain higher concentrations of some chemicals can be offered through a dental health professional.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact Dr. Jim Ed Watson at Jackson Center for Smiles in Jackson, MS today!

To learn more about symptoms and treatment of dry mouth, visit Findmydentist.com