Dry Mouth: A Minor Aging Problem That’s Not So Minor

close up of senior woman's white teethAround 20 percent of seniors experience dry mouth—a lack of saliva in the mouth. While this may sound like a minor annoyance that can be solved by drinking more, it’s not quite so simple.

Dry mouth, most often a side effect of medications, can affect not only your oral health but also the overall health of your body. Furthermore, it can seriously hit your quality of life and self-image.

In this article, we’ll discuss what causes dry mouth, how it affects your overall health, and how you can treat it.

What is Dry Mouth?

Also called xerostomia, dry mouth is most common in seniors. Saliva production drops by around 30 percent as we age, leaving a dryer environment in the mouth.

Further compounding this are the 400+ medications that can worsen a dry mouth. Saliva reduction is a side effect in drugs used for many common conditions, such as high blood pressure, incontinence, depression, etc.

Less saliva creates an acidic environment in the mouth, which is the main contributor to tooth and gum problems. That’s because plaque—a corrosive mix of bacteria and food particles—is much more likely to form in the dryer, more acidic mouth. Plaque build-up leads, in turn, to gum inflammation. This is especially true with seniors, whose gums naturally recede with age.

Gum inflammation is linked to health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. In addition, gum inflammation and disease will lead to losing teeth—which will always shorten lifespan.

Symptoms of Dry Mouth

If you are a relative to an elderly person, remember that they probably won’t be forthcoming with details about their dry mouth.

When checking on your loved one who lives alone, you need to be observant and notice all changes or symptoms. This is especially so for dry mouth, when many of the symptoms are easily noticeable.

Here are the general symptoms of an excessively dry mouth:

  • bad breath
  • splitting or cracking of the lips
  • split or sore skin at the corners of the mouth
  • dryness in the mouth
  • taste disorders
  • refusing to eat favorite foods
  • fungal infections in the mouth
  • increased need to drink water, especially at night
  • inflammation of the tongue
  • tongue ulcers
  • painful tongue
  • lipstick sticking to teeth
  • more tooth decay and plaque
  • trouble speaking
  • problems swallowing and chewing—especially dry and crumbly foods, such as crackers or cereals
  • problems with dentures
  • denture sores
  • tongue sticking to the palate
  • sticky or stringy saliva

If you notice your loved one seems to be having some of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with the dentist as soon as possible. You may want to consider using a geriatric dentist, since they will be most knowledgeable about oral health problems plaguing seniors.

How to Treat Dry Mouth

Even before you get to the dentist, there are many things you can do to reduce the dryness in your mouth.

Some easy ways to keep the mouth lubricated are:

  • Chew sugar-free gum or sucking hard sugarless candies. These can stimulate saliva production and alleviate many of the symptoms.
  • Sip water throughout the day.
  • Rinse with water several times a day.
  • Use antibacterial mouthwash at least once a day, but avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol.
  • Don’t sleep with your dentures.
  • Crunch on hard vegetables such as carrots and celery.

People with dry mouth should avoid smoking, sugary or acidic foods and drinks, dry foods, spicy foods, or extremely hot or cold drinks.

If your doctor discovers which of your medications is causing your dry mouth, he may be able to alter your dosage or prescribe an alternative that doesn’t cause these symptoms. If the underlying cause either can’t be found or can’t be changed, your doctor may prescribe a medication that stimulates saliva production.

You should also pay special attention to your dental hygiene. The American Dental Association recommends older adults should see their dentist twice a year, and adults over age 75 should go three times a year.

Dry mouth is unpleasant and unhealthy, but it is not an inevitable part of aging. If you or your loved one is suffering from dry mouth, see your dentist to treat it as soon as possible.

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