Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: February 02, 2024

Dry mouth, also called xerostomia, can be a side effect of radiation therapy to the head and neck area or by medications used to treat cancer or side effects. Patients getting radiation to the head and neck may have a change in how saliva is made and the quality of saliva. Radiation and chemotherapy can cause irritation that leads to more saliva being made. The saliva tends to be thicker and some patients say it feels hard to control. After treatment, the extra saliva goes away, and the mouth becomes dry. This can be a temporary side effect that may or may not go away.

Having a dry mouth may affect speech, taste, ability to swallow, and the use of dentures. Patients may say their mouths feel sore or burning. Dry mouth may also mean having cracked lips, and fissures (splits) in the corners of the lips. Normal saliva has enzymes that protect the teeth and gums from bacteria, keeping them healthy. Having less saliva increases the risk of:

  • Getting cavities.
  • Periodontal disease.
  • Tooth loss.

Can dry mouth be prevented?

The extent of dry mouth is based on the radiation technique used, and the dose of radiation received by the salivary glands. Radiation techniques are aimed at preventing or reducing dry mouth. 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 may get better quicker after treatment is done.

What can I do if I have a dry mouth?

If you have a dry mouth, there are things you can do to help manage it. Try these tips:

  • Floss once a day.
  • Rinse your mouth (oral cavity) right 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. Sip water or spray it in the mouth regularly.
  • Use 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 (1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking soda, and 1 quart of water).
  • Chew sugar-free gum/suck on sugar-free hard candy or drink diet ginger ale to stimulate saliva being made.
  • Avoid liquids and foods that are high in sugar.
  • Limit coffee, tea, and alcohol as these will make your dry mouth worse.
  • 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 it moist.
  • Avoid rinses that have alcohol.
  • Avoid antihistamines which can dry the area more.
  • Use moisturizer often on the lips.
  • Salivary substitutes or artificial saliva preparations may relieve discomfort. They work by wetting the mouth and replacing some of what makes up your saliva.
    • Oral pilocarpine (Salagen) is a medication approved by the FDA to stimulate the making of saliva from the salivary glands. You will need a prescription for this so ask your provider if it is right for you.
    • Biotene® products are mouthwash, toothpaste, and chewing gum that have the pH of saliva. You can get these without a prescription.
  • Use a cool-mist humidifier at night to provide humidity, mainly in winter months when the house is heated.
  • See your dentist every 3 months for cleaning and a dental health checkup.
  • Acupuncture may increase saliva production for people who still can make some saliva naturally.

Dry mouth can be a challenging side effect to deal with daily. Contact your care provider for help with managing this side effect. 

American Head & Neck Society. Xerostomia. https://www.ahns.info/survivorship_intro/xerostomia-2/

Head and Neck Cancer Alliance. 2017. Dry Mouth. https://www.headandneck.org/dry-mouth/

Related Blog Posts

July 14, 2023

Feeding the Gut

by OncoLink Team

July 19, 2022

Managing Side Effects with South Asian Foods

by OncoLink Team