Virtually everyone gets dry mouth (technically known as xerostomia) from time to time. Perhaps you’ve felt your mouth go dry in the middle of a scary movie, after a long run on a hot, sunny day, or upon waking up after eating an overly salty meal.
It’s not a pleasant feeling — your tongue feels thick and sticky, it’s hard to swallow and talk, and your breath feels, well, not-so-minty-fresh. As the colloquial term cottonmouth suggests, it can feel like your mouth is packed with cotton.
For as many as 22 percent of people, dry mouth is not just an infrequent inconvenience but a condition that can have serious health consequences. Here’s why it’s important to tackle dry mouth head on, some common habits that can put you more at risk for dry mouth, and a few resources to help stop that uncomfortable dry mouth sensation.
The Health Consequences of Dry Mouth
Dry mouth is the result of reduced saliva in the mouth. It can happen for a number of reasons, from dehydration to suppression of saliva production in your salivary glands.
Besides feeling uncomfortable, dry mouth can have serious health consequences. While you may think of saliva as just something you need to swallow food, it also serves an important role in digestion and helps you maintain good oral health and hygiene. Saliva helps wash away and destroy bacteria and bits of food that otherwise may cling to your teeth and cause tooth decay and gum disease (as well as stinky breath). If gum disease gets bad enough, teeth can even get loose and fall out.
Saliva also contains minerals that help keep teeth strong by building up tooth enamel. When the mouth is dry, the teeth are unprotected, and eventually minerals start to move out of the teeth. This, too, causes tooth decay. Tooth decay and gum disease can lead to even more serious problems than tooth loss and bad breath. People with poor oral health may be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illness, diabetes, and even dementia.
7 Habits that Contribute to Dry Mouth
If your mouth is dry and no glass of water can quench the feeling, you have dry mouth. To identify the culprit of the dryness, first look at your habits. These common habits cause dry mouth.
1. Breathing through your mouth.
Breathing in through your nose isn’t just a good idea during meditation. Mouth breathing can seriously increase your risk of dry mouth and the oral health issues that accompany it.
If you notice you wake up most mornings with dry mouth, the issue may be snoring. Snorers have a higher risk of dry mouth than non-snorers, as they spend more of the night with their mouths open. (Just try to snore with your mouth closed.)
Frequent exercisers who breathe through their mouths may also experience dry mouth and its accompanying issues. In one study, nearly half of the 352 elite athletes studied had untreated tooth decay due, at least in part, to breathing through their mouths. (Sugary sports drinks may have also been a culprit — see below.) These athletes otherwise maintained good dental hygiene. They brushed their teeth and flossed more frequently than the average person.
Dry mouth from mouth breathing doesn’t only impact adults. One small study found that adolescents who breathe through their mouths have a higher risk of developing streptococcus mutans, a bacteria that contributes to tooth decay. (How’s that for an excuse to tell your teen to keep their mouth closed?)
2. Drinking soda and sugary sport drinks.
If your mouth is dry, you may reach for a sugary sports drink or a cold soda to help quench your thirst. But these types of beverages can contribute to dry mouth, according to the study of elite athletes cited above.
In fact, caffeinated sugary drinks produce a double whammy when it comes to oral health. They reduce the production of saliva, and they may also contribute to more aggressive forms of tooth decay, according to a small study of 35 people.
Worried about your tea or coffee habit? Here’s some good news: Caffeinated tea, particularly green tea, can increase saliva production. Coffee generally has no or minimal effects.
3. Drinking alcohol.
Alcohol consumption can also lead to dry mouth. Alcohol is a diuretic, so it flushes water out of your system. When your body is dehydrated, it does not produce as much saliva, which can leave your mouth dry.
Long-term, chronic alcohol abuse may also lead to dry mouth, because it could impede the production of major saliva-producing glands (although this process is not yet fully understood). This condition is particularly common in drinkers who have developed alcoholic cirrhosis.
4. Smoking cigarettes.
Studies show that cigarettes have a dramatic effect on the body’s ability to produce saliva, which can lead to dry mouth. The problem is particularly severe in long-term smokers and in older adults who smoke.
The culprit here is nicotine, which reduces saliva flow. In one study, 39 percent of smokers studied had at least one symptom of dry mouth. For non-smokers, only 12 percent did.
Reduced saliva can lead to more bacteria and an increased risk of gum disease. In fact, smokers are more likely to experience gum disease than their non-smoking counterparts. (The risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked each day.) Compared to non-smokers, smokers are also up to 3.6 times more likely to lose teeth due to gum disease or tooth decay.
This might be true in part because cigarette use reduces the efficacy of your immune system, so it’s harder for your body to fight off gum infection. The smoke itself can also produce an inflammatory response in the gums.
If you’re a smoker who hopes to avoid the negative oral health consequences of cigarettes by vaping, think again. Vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes, could be just as bad for your mouth as cigarettes.
E-cigarettes can contain nicotine in comparable amounts to cigarettes. E-cigarettes deliver nicotine in amounts as low as 3 milligrams per dose to as high as 18 milligrams. In comparison, cigarettes typically range between 6 and 28 milligrams of nicotine, with an average of 10 to 12 milligrams of nicotine.
The verdict? E-cigarettes can contribute to the same reduced saliva production and oral health problems associated with traditional cigarettes.
What’s more, e-cigarettes have another hidden culprit that can contribute to dry mouth and other oral health issues: a chemical called propylene glycol, or PG. When PG breaks down, it produces acetic acid, lactic acid, and propionaldehyde, all of which break down tooth enamel and soft tissue. To make matters worse, water molecules (like those that make up 98 percent of saliva) bind to PG. The not-so-shocking result is dry mouth, as well as an increased risk for tooth decay and gum disease.
This could explain, in part, why the level of bacteria in vapers’ mouths is on par with those of smokers (and significantly higher than non-smokers). More bacteria can cause bad breath and eventually lead to tooth decay and gum disease.
6. Using cannabis.
The short-term use of cannabis — whether it’s smoked or taken as an edible — can cause dry mouth. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why that might be the case, but they have found that dry mouth is a commonly reported side effect of using marijuana.
Frequent cannabis users have an increased risk of gum disease — about twice the risk of non-frequent users. Those who smoke marijuana are also more at risk of getting tooth decay and cavities, although the risk may not be due to cannabis itself. Researchers speculate that cannabis users may be less likely to practice sound oral hygiene, or their diets may not be stellar thanks to the munchies, another commonly reported side effect of using marijuana.
7. Taking certain medications.
Some of the most common types of over-the-counter medications that cause dry mouth include antihistamines, antidiarrheal medications, pain medications, diuretics, and weight-loss drugs. Certain prescribed medications can also cause dry mouth, including those for depression, ADD, and high blood pressure.
If you have dry mouth, try limiting or avoiding the above habits. (If you think medication is to blame, talk to your doctor.) It may also help to drink more water, chew sugar-free gum, or suck on sugar-free mints. The best thing you can do is practice excellent dental hygiene. Brush, floss, and consider using an oral rinse formulated for dry mouth to help relieve the symptoms and discomfort of dry mouth. Ultimately, sound oral hygiene and healthy habits should help keep dry mouth at bay.