Dry Mouth Treatments

August 16, 2011

Your doctor or dentist may recommend oral rinses and moisturizers, or prescribe an artificial saliva.

Saliva is produced by three major glands in the mouth (salivary glands) and plays a key role in

  • chewing, swallowing, and digesting food
  • preventing infection in the mouth by controlling bacteria
  • preventing tooth decay

“Saliva is mostly water, but it also contains enzymes and lubricants,” says Kelsey. “The enzymes help digest food and the lubricants make speaking, chewing, and swallowing more comfortable.”

Saliva helps control bacteria, which cling to the surface of teeth. They feed on sugar in the food we eat and break down and use (metabolize) the sugar to grow.

“A by-product of the metabolized sugar is acid, which starts to eat away at a tooth’s surface,” says Kelsey. Saliva neutralizes the acid and helps wash away food particles. If there is not enough saliva, cavities may occur.

Also called saliva substitutes, artificial salivas are regulated by FDA as medical devices. “Unlike drugs, artificial salivas have no chemical action,” says Susan Runner, D.D.S., chief of FDA’s dental devices branch. “Their action is mechanical. They moisten and lubricate the mouth but do not stimulate the salivary glands to make saliva.”

While not a cure, artificial salivas can provide short-term relief of the symptoms of dry mouth. “They can also help minimize discomfort after an oral procedure,” says Runner.

Artificial salivas come in a variety of forms, including rinses, sprays, swabs, gels, and tablets that dissolve in the mouth. Some are available by prescription only; others can be bought over-the-counter.

FDA has also approved several prescription drugs to relieve dry mouth caused by certain medical treatments or conditions, such as Sjögren’s syndrome and radiation for head or neck cancer.