13 Causes of Dry Mouth and the Treatments That Help

Dry mouth or xerostomia occurs when your salivary glands don't produce enough saliva to hydrate the mouth.

Dry mouth is a common problem

If you are one of the millions of people who live with near-constant dry mouth, you know this condition can be so much more than just a nuisance.

Dry mouth, which is known medically as xerostomia, occurs when your salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva to keep your mouth hydrated.

“Untreated, dry mouth can cause difficulty swallowing foods as you need saliva to moisten your food,” says Erich P. Voigt, MD, an associate professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

“It can cause dental decay and increase your risk for mouth infections including yeast infection (thrush) too as saliva also helps protect your mouth from germs.”

Here’s what else you need to know about dry mouth causes and what to do for treatment.

Why do we need saliva anyway?

You probably haven’t given much thought to saliva and why you need it, but it has an important role, Dr. Voigt says. Saliva comes from the salivary glands in your mouth. They empty saliva into your mouth through ducts.

Saliva, in turn, helps with speech and swallowing and protects your mouth and teeth from bacteria and other threats because it contains antibodies that kill germs.

It also contains enzymes that aid in digestion. When saliva is in short supply, such as with dry mouth, all sorts of oral health problems can occur, he says.

Xerostomia or dry mouth symptoms can range from mild to severe. The American Dental Association lists potential dry mouth symptoms as:

  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, tasting, or speaking
  • Sore throat
  • Cracked lips
  • Dry tongue
  • Mouth sores
  • Mouth infections including yeast infection
  • Hoarseness
  • Bad breath
  • Cavities

close up of man's mouth and beardg-stockstudio/Getty Images

Causes of xerostomia or dry mouth

Dry mouth occurs because of a host of factors, including the following.

Medication side effects

This is the number one cause of dry mouth or xerostomia.

“Hundreds of medicines can cause the salivary glands to make less saliva. For example, medicines for high blood pressure, depression, and bladder-control issues often cause dry mouth,” says Blake M. Warner, DDS, PhD, an assistant clinical investigator and chief of the salivary disorders unit at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Other drugs linked to dry mouth include antihistamines to treat allergies and asthma, decongestants, pain medications, diuretics, and some muscle relaxants.

The more medications you take, the greater the risk for side effects that can include dry mouth.

What to do

Talk to your doctor if you think your medication is causing dry mouth, Dr. Voigt says.

“There are likely ways to minimize this side effect such as hydration and running a humidifier at night,” he says. If symptoms are severe, chewing sugar-free gum or using saliva substitutes that contain xylitol can add moisture back.

(Here are some other surprise benefits of chewing gum.) Sometimes, switching drugs or tweaking your dose can also help relieve dry mouth, he notes.

Salivary gland diseases

Infections, cancer, and other diseases that affect the salivary glands such as mumps can cause them to swell, which limits their ability to do their job and produce saliva, causing dry mouth.

Nerve damage to the head or neck can damage the nerves that tell your salivary glands to produce saliva, Dr. Voigt says.

What to do

Your doctor can help diagnose and treat salivary gland diseases.

Alcohol

If you have ever had a hangover, you know that dry, cottonmouth can be one of the signs, Dr. Voigt says.

Alcohol can be dehydrating, which is why you don’t feel so great after a bender or boozy brunch, he says.

What to do

Drinking only in moderation and making sure to hydrate when imbibing can help relieve alcohol-related dry mouth or xerostomia.

Remember, moderation means no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tobacco use

Add dry mouth to the long list of side effects of smoking cigarettes or marijuana and vaping, Dr. Voigt says. In particular, “vaping causes changes in the lining of mouth and tongue that can lead to dry mouth.”

What to do

Quit all tobacco products, or better yet, don’t start. (Check out these nine proven ways to quit vaping now.)

Stuffy nose

Those pesky nasal allergies may be drying out your mouth, too, Dr. Voigt says.

“Your nose and sinuses are responsible for moisturizing the air that you breathe,” he explains. “When your nose is blocked, and you are exclusively mouth breathing, your mouth tends to become dry,” he says. “This is one of the common reasons that you wake up with a dry mouth.”

What to do

Addressing the underlying cause of the stuffiness should make a difference. For example, if you have a deviated septum—the displacement of the wall between the nostrils—that is causing difficulty breathing, surgery can be a cure, Dr. Voigt says.

Cancer treatments

If you have had radiation to your head or neck region to treat cancer, you can develop dry mouth as radiation dries out salivary glands and you can’t secrete saliva, Dr. Voigt says.

In addition, chemotherapy drugs may make saliva thicker, causing your mouth to feel dry, he says.

What to do

Artificial saliva products or prescribed medications that help you secrete saliva can be really helpful. “Really good dental care is also important because without saliva, you can get bad dental carries and mouth infections,” Dr. Voigt says.

Sjogren’s syndrome

An autoimmune disease that occurs when your body misfires against its own salivary glands, Sjogren’s syndrome can cause dry mouth, Dr. Voigt says.

Up to 3.1 million adults have this condition, which is typically diagnosed between the ages of 45 and 55 and disproportionately affects women, according to the American College of Rheumatology.

Sjogren’s syndrome may also cause dry eyes and dryness in the genital area.

It is typically diagnosed with a biopsy of the small salivary glands in your lip, Dr. Voigt says. “We look at them under the microscope to see if there is evidence of an inflammatory reaction, which is suggestive of Sjogren’s.”

What to do

Drinking lots of water, chewing gum, or using saliva substitutes may treat symptoms of dry mouth if you have Sjogren’s syndrome. Rheumatologists are the specialists who care for people with Sjogren’s syndrome.

Sometimes prescription medications that stimulate saliva flow, such as pilocarpine (Salagen) or cevimeline (Evoxac) are needed.

HIV/AIDS

HIV, the virus that causes AIDs, may also cause dry mouth. In some people with HIV, salivary glands swell, which can lead to reduced saliva production and dry mouth, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

“Dry mouth can also be a side effect of certain HIV medications,” adds Saul Pressner, DMD, a dentist in New York City.

What to do

Drinking more water may help and so can chewing gum. Saliva substitutes and/drugs that can boost saliva production and flow may also be needed. And regular dental care is essential, Dr. Pressner says.

Diabetes

High levels of blood sugar or glucose in saliva may cause dry mouth if you have diabetes. Studies have also found that people with diabetes have less saliva, according to the American Dental Association.

What to do

In addition to drinking more water and other lifestyle changes, getting diabetes under tighter control will likely reduce dry mouth, notes the American Diabetes Association.

Covid-19

A growing body of evidence suggests that dry mouth may be yet another symptom of Covid-19, and some people are noticing it even after they recover.

One of the reasons for this is that the virus that causes Covid-19 infects and can multiply in the cells of the salivary glands, according to research in Nature Medicine.

What to do

“If you notice new-onset dry mouth without any other known cause, consider getting tested for Covid-19,” says Warner, who is one of the authors on this study.

Anxiety

Stress makes everything worse—including dry mouth.

In one study, individuals with anxiety, depression and/or high stress levels produced less saliva than their counterparts, according to the Journal of Dental Research, Dental Clinics, Dental Prospects.

What to do

Find something to help you de-stress and do it every single day, whether taking a walk, engaging in deep breathing or taking a yoga class.

Menopause

Hormonal ups and downs that occur during pregnancy or menopause also have been associated with dry mouth.

“Hormonal changes can lead to changes in any different organ systems including the oral cavity,” Warner says. Sjogren’s disease is often diagnosed among menopausal aged women, he notes.

What to do

Talk to your doctor about your menopausal symptoms to find out what you can try to alleviate them and take back your quality of life. If dry mouth is bothersome, lifestyle changes such as drinking more water or chewing gum may make a difference.

Caffeine

Overdoing it on high-octane drinks such as coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks can do more than keep you buzzing. These drinks tend to be dehydrating, and as a result, can dry out your mouth, Dr. Voigt says.

What to do

Reel it in, i.e., try to cut back on your caffeine and drink more water instead to avoid xerostomia.

woman drinking water while sitting in bed at homeMaskot/Getty Images

Treating dry mouth

Certain easy-to-implement lifestyle changes may help relieve dry mouth or xerostomia regardless of the cause, Warner says.

This includes sipping water or sugarless drinks often and especially during meals, he says.

Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless hard candy can stimulate saliva flow, Warner says.

“Citrus, cinnamon, or mint-flavored candies are good choices,” he adds. “Some sugarless chewing gums and candies contain xylitol and may help prevent cavities.”

Avoiding spicy or salty foods, which may cause pain in a dry mouth, is also wise, he says.

He adds that using a humidifier at night can keep the air moist and prevent you from waking up with a dry, cotton mouth. Here are some natural remedies for dry mouth that will make you feel so much better.

Making sure you see your dentist regularly can reduce the chance of cavities and mouth infections, he says.

“Sometime these changes can improve your symptoms enough that they no longer bother you, but see a doctor if dry mouth persists more than two or three weeks with no obvious explanation,” Dr. Voigt says.

Now that you know about xerostomia and dry mouth causes, check out what bad breath reveals about your health.

Sources

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.