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By Bill Kuttler, DDS
August 07, 2013
Tags: xylitol   dry mouth   side effect   saliva   xerostomia  

Have you ever been about to speak, felt anxious, and then felt like a cotton ball had just grown in your mouth? For some people that feeling is a daily occurrence.

As we age, many of us experience a dry mouth more frequently and even routinely. And, interestingly, many of us don’t even notice it, because it begins to occur so gradually. Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do you regularly do things to keep your mouth moist? (Sipping water or sucking on candy or mints are two examples that many people give.)
  2. Are you getting up in the middle of the night to drink fluids because your mouth feels dry?
  3. Does your mouth become dry when you are speaking?

If the answers to any of these questions are “yes”, you are probably experiencing a dry mouth. That leads to two questions that we are frequently asked. First, why is it happening? And, second, what can I do about it?

There are two common causes of a dry mouth and as well as others worth exploring. The most common cause is a side-effect of taking certain medications. If you are taking medications that your medical doctor has prescribed for you, read the list of warnings that accompanies the drugs. You may be surprised at how frequently “dry mouth” or “xerostomia” (the fancy medical term for dry mouth) is listed. If that is the case, talk with your medical doctor about options–there may be another drug that provides the same benefits for you that does not have that side effect. Or there may not be, and it may simply be something you need to deal with in order to gain the important benefits from the drug you are taking. But, again, it is worth exploring.

The second common cause is aging. Both the quantity and quality of our saliva often changes as we age. The quantity often lessens. And what saliva we have often becomes more ropey or thick, so it feels less “slick” or fluid. While there aren’t a lot of things you can do about this one, other than drinking more water and learning to cope with it, it may help you to know that at least you aren’t alone.

But what can you do about it? First let me address what NOT to do about it. Don’t start drinking sugary beverages or sucking on candies or mints that have sugar in them! That is a sure way to almost guarantee that you will start having lots of decay problems. While all of those things will stimulate your saliva glands to some degree, they also tend to use up what moisture is present in your mouth and are neutral or actually somewhat negative in the “saliva wars” in the long term. And the sugar that they provide to the bacteria in your mouth often results in rapid and extensive tooth decay that you’ll soon need to have repaired–damage that could have been prevented!

So what CAN you do about it? The first and easiest approach is to drink lots of water. Sipping water throughout the day is usually most helpful, but increasing your fluid intake in general also helps. Second, sucking on mints or chewing gum with xylitol may help. Xylitol may actually help prevent decay, and it also may stimulate your saliva glands to become more active. Third, if the problem is very bothersome, there are saliva substitutes available. While some people find them offensive, others say they like them a lot and are grateful that they exist. It may be worthwhile to at least give them a try.

And lastly, let me urge you to discuss this problem with your dentist and medical doctor. A dry mouth may also be a sign of other medical problems and, as always, early detection provides far better options for treatment. Perhaps the most common systemic disease that creates dry mouths is Sjogren’s Syndrome. It is an auto-immune disease that has many symptoms and early treatment can at least mitigate some of the problems associated with it.

Bottom line: A dry mouth can inhibit your ability to swallow, speak, and laugh–and all are important! Talk to your health care professionals about it and get information to help!

This article originally appeared in Dubuque 365ink magazine. It is republished with permission from the publication.

Every two years as a licensed dental hygienist in the state of Iowa, I must report my continuing education credits for re-licensure to the Iowa Board of Dental Examiners.  This year as I am reviewing my records and compiling the last two years of my learning opportunities, I am in awe.

I have been in practice since 1973 when I graduated from the University of Hawaii.  Needless to say some things have changed over the years!  Who would ever have guessed the scope and variety of the things I am continuing to learn! In looking through the listing of classes I have attended, I am amazed by the scope, breadth, and variety of  topics contained in what I have most recently learned!

I have:

  • Been certified in the use of lasers for dental hygiene therapy
  • Learned about the role of the dental team in sleep medicine
  • Reviewed new preventive therapies and products including fluoride varnish and xylitol for reducing and eliminating cavities
  • Learned about saliva testing for periodontal disease and dental decay
  • Discovered more about testing for the DNA markers for the genetic links for the predisposition to dental disease
  • Taken nutrition classes to learn about nutrition for women’s health,  nutrition for oral health, and dietary supplements for oral health
  • Been certified in CPR  and OSHA, and attended reviews on infection control
  • Taken over 24 hours of continuing education on the most recent data regarding periodontal disease  alone
  • Taken  more than 13 hours of continuing education just on learning about new products, both prescribed and over the counter
  • Given classes in dental yoga for jaw relaxation and stress reduction
  • Heard more about myofunctional therapy to change swallowing patterns and orthodontic development for children and people with sleep disorders

So I just added up the total hours of my continuing education to report to the Iowa Board of Dental Examiners and discovered that I have taken 73.5 hours of continuing education in the two year biennium from September 2009 until the end of this month -- 39 of those just since the beginning of this year!  (This is not counting the non-clinical courses on behavioral and spiritual development, and business management and marketing classes that the Board of Dental Examiners does not recognize for re-licensure.)  The required number of continuing education by the state is 30 hours – so I was very surprised to learn that I have more than twice what is required!

Along with preparing my re-licensure application I am also in the midst of preparing to host my dental hygiene classmates from the University of Hawaii.  It’s the first time we have gathered in Iowa, but we have gotten together almost every 5 years since 1973.  This year, I want to pull out this list and compare notes with my buddies. I wonder if they are as excited as I am to be a dental hygienist.!  I wonder if they believe, as I do, that there has never been a better time to be learning, un-learning, re-learning, and exploring the myriad of opportunities research and scientific data has given us for continuing and integrating evidence-based clinical and behavioral dental hygiene practice.  I can’t wait to talk with my friends who have shared the history, the passion, and the commitment to dental hygiene with me.  I can’t wait to be with the same friends who helped me get through chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology,  and so much more. I know we will have a wonderful time!

(… And there will be a luau too!)

-- Sharon Kuttler, RDH