What Is Xerostomia? - Definition, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

You may not recognize the term xerostomia, but you may have experienced it before - it is the medical term for dry mouth, that uncomfortable cottony feeling you get in your mouth when you aren't producing enough saliva.

What is Xerostomia?

You may not be familiar with the medical term xerostomia, yet you probably know what it is - dry mouth! Many people have personally experienced dry mouth for one reason or another - are you one of them? Basically, xerostomia occurs because the salivary glands aren't producing enough saliva to keep the mouth wet. Short-term xerostomia may occur due to illness, nervousness, or stress, but long-term xerostomia can lead to dental problems like tooth decay and may make eating, drinking, and talking difficult. Xerostomia is usually a side effect of another condition, rather than a medical condition in and of itself.

Causes of Xerostomia

So what causes dry mouth (or xerostomia) to occur? The most common cause of dry mouth is the use of certain medications. However, certain diseases can cause dry mouth too, and these include diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and Sjogren's syndrome. In some cases, mouth cancer may be to blame, as well as cancer treatments and nervous system damage.

Other causes of dry mouth include age (instances increase with age), tobacco use, and drug use (especially methamphetamines).

Symptoms of Xerostomia

Obviously, the most prominent symptom is...a dry mouth! There isn't enough saliva being produced to keep the mouth or throat wet, and this can cause general discomfort. Lack of saliva can make swallowing, eating, and speaking difficult. It may affect the taste in your mouth or throat, as well as cause bad breath because the saliva is not washing bacteria away. When bacteria is allowed to linger, this can lead to dental issues such as tooth decay and gum disease, but these symptoms typically occur after prolonged exposure to dry mouth. Dry mouth doesn't go away simply by increasing the consumption of water (though dry mouth may also be a symptom of dehydration).

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