Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

Last Modified: May 11, 2016

Dry mouth, called xerostomia, may be caused by radiation therapy given to the head and neck area or by medications used to treat the cancer or side effects you are experiencing. Patients receiving radiation to the head and neck may experience a change in the production and quality of saliva in the major and minor salivary glands. During radiation therapy treatment, saliva production actually increases, due to irritation caused by the radiation or chemotherapy (if administered). During treatment, the saliva tends to be thicker, often described by patients as "ropey" and difficult to mobilize. After treatment, the excessive saliva dissipates and the mouth becomes dry. This can be a temporary side effect, resolving completely or partially over the year after treatment, or result in a permanent loss of saliva production.

Dry mouth may affect speech, taste sensation, ability to swallow, and the use of dentures. Patients may report a sore or burning sensation, cracked lips, and fissures in the corners of the lips. Normal saliva contains enzymes that protect the teeth and gums from bacteria, keeping them healthy. In turn, there is an increased risk of developing cavities, periodontal disease and ultimately, tooth loss due to less saliva.

Can Dry Mouth Be Prevented?

The extent of dry mouth is dependent upon the radiation technique used, the dose of radiation received by the salivary glands and the percentage of the salivary gland that receives radiation. Advanced radiation techniques are aimed at preventing or reducing the extent and permanence of xerostomia. With these techniques, the salivary gland on the side opposite of the cancer receives a lower dose of radiation; therefore loss of salivary function may be less and recover sooner following the completion of treatment.

What Can I Do If I have Dry Mouth?

If you have developed xerostomia, there are management strategies that can help you effectively deal with your dry mouth and prevent cavities and periodontal disease. Try to follow these simple guidelines:

  • Perform oral hygiene at least four times per day (after each meal and before bedtime).
  • Floss once a day.
  • The mouth (oral cavity) should be rinsed immediately after meals.
  • Dentures need to be brushed and rinsed after meals.
  • Only use toothpaste with fluoride when brushing.
  • Keep water handy to keep the mouth moist at all times. Sip water or spray it in the mouth regularly.
  • Apply prescription strength fluoride gel at bedtime unless you do not have any teeth.
  • Rinse with salt and baking soda solution 4-6 times a day (½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. baking soda, and 8 oz of water).
  • Chew sugar free gum/suck on sugar free hard candy or drink diet ginger ale to stimulate saliva production.
  • Avoid liquids and foods with high sugar content.
  • Limit coffee, tea and alcohol as these will make dry mouth worse. Caffeine products such as coffee, tea and colas also act as diuretics.
  • Avoid dry foods, such as bread, dry meat, toast, crackers, and snack foods that are dry and salty.
  • Add sauces or gravies to food to make them more moist.
  • Avoid rinses containing alcohol.
  • Avoid antihistamines, which can dry the area further.
  • Use moisturizer regularly on the lips.
  • Salivary substitutes or artificial saliva preparations may relieve discomfort by temporarily wetting the mouth and replacing some of the constituents of saliva.
    • Oral pilocarpine (Salagen) is the only medication approved by the FDA to stimulate saliva secretion from the remaining salivary glands. It is not appropriate for everyone with dry mouth, and it can only be obtained with a prescription from your doctor.
    • Biotene® products (mouthwash, toothpaste and chewing gum that have the pH of saliva) are available without a prescription and can be effective for treating dry mouth.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier at night in the bedroom to provide humidity, especially in winter months when the house is heated.
  • See your dentist every 3 months for cleaning and a dental health check up.
  • Acupuncture may increase saliva production for people that have some naturally produced saliva.


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