Preventing Xerostomia's Consequences
Simply stated, preventing xerostomia is essentially impossible. Because dry mouth itself is a symptom of various other unpreventable diseases and medical conditions, the only real solution is to never experience those illnesses – like diabetes and certain cancers – in the first place. That, of course, is much easier said that done. However, there are some steps you can take to lessen your chances of ever experiencing dry mouth. And, just as importantly, there are clear-cut and effective methods to preventing the tooth decay, gum disease and other unpleasant conditions that stem from dry mouth.
First, you may want to stop smoking and drinking, or never start in the first place. Tobacco and alcohol use are two of the leading causes of throat and oral cancers; and in turn, the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that help fight them off are two of the leading causes of dry mouth. Chemotherapy, like many other medications, slows the production of saliva; and radiation therapy destroys the salivary glands altogether. Additionally, for someone already experiencing dry mouth symptoms, drinking and smoking have been proven to significantly worsen the effects.
The next thing you can do is carefully manage your medications. Hundreds of prescription drugs on the market today – especially ones for anxiety, depression and hypertension – list dry mouth as a probable side effect, so there’s a good chance that one or more of the ones you’re taking are included in that list. Taking just one of those medications can lead to painful dry mouth symptoms; when you start taking multiple xerostomia-inducing drugs, the symptoms can increase exponentially. So talk to your doctor and see if there is another combination of meds you can take that will be just as effective in treating your ailments while also lessening your chances of suffering from dry mouth. You can also ask your physician about taking the lowest effective dosage of each medication. Doing so should decrease the risk of slowing down your salivary production.
Another common cause of dry mouth is diabetes, but just because you have the disease does not mean you are relegated to a life of dry mouth. Usually, it is only when the diabetes goes untreated that the symptoms of dry mouth are experienced. When an individual’s blood sugar level stays too high for too long, fluids from all over the body – including from the mouth – travel to the bloodstream instead of to the tissues. But with proper diabetes management, the blood sugar levels will stabilize, and preventing xerostomia becomes a more feasible option.
There are some cases, however, where dry mouth is completely unavoidable, so prevention of its symptoms is not possible. An individual with Sjogren’s syndrome, for example, can’t do much to stave off cracked lips and stringy saliva, since the disease specifically targets the salivary glands and causes them to cease functioning properly. However, this does not mean that that person is destined to a future of decayed teeth and fungal infections, as xerostomia can so often lead to.
The most effective weapon in preventing xerostomia oral degeneration is fluoride. Although it works best as a preventative measure at a younger age, fluoride treatments can be used successfully at any age.
“The baby boomers – anybody 60 and over in our country – probably didn’t get fluoride when they were growing up, and that can rapidly lead to severe dental decay in a short period of time,” says Barry Bartusiak, DMD, of Washington, Pa. “Fluoride is one of the big barriers to dental decay, so we really try to utilize that option. We will make specially designed trays [like the ones used for whitening]. We will say, ‘OK you’re going to have these trays in your mouth, and we’re going to write you a prescription for fluoride, and you’re going to wear them twice a day until you’re done with your radiation therapy, or until you’re out of the woods with this medication cocktail.’”
And – as always – brushing, flossing and regular trips to the dentist are imperative.
“You just have to stay on top of it and work with your dental professionals to find different pathways and avenues to help you get over those little humps and bumps so it doesn’t become something that’s a monumental challenge to everyday life,” Dr. Bartusiak says. “The cure is expensive, but the maintenance is inexpensive.”