You may have heard of xeriscaping—gardening with minimal use of water. You may have heard of xerography—the process of copying with dry ink toner. But what have you heard about xerostomia?
It’s pronounced zero-STOH-mia, and it’s from two Greek words that mean “dry mouth.” Most people get a dry mouth when they haven’t stayed hydrated or when they are facing an extreme situation of fear or embarrassment. For some people, xerostomia is an ongoing condition that is annoying at the least and debilitating at worst.
Without enough saliva, dry mouth sufferers can have trouble chewing, swallowing, and even speaking. The sticky, dry feeling often interrupts sleep. Some of the other effects of dry mouth include bad breath, decreased taste, and mouth sores. Dry mouth can also cause dental problems including cavities, gum disease and periodontitis.
Reduced function of the salivary glands
Xerostomia results from a malfunction of the salivary glands. There are several glands that produce saliva and they can be damaged in various ways. Prolonged use of prescription medication for allergies, high blood pressure, or depression can bring on xerostomia. Some chronic diseases such as diabetes, hepatitis C, depression, or sarcoidosis are associated with dry mouth. Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder characterized by both dry mouth and dry eyes. Dry mouth is extremely common among patients treated for cancer, especially for those treated for head or neck cancer.
Radiation treatment for cancer can damage the salivary glands, sometimes permanently. The ionizing radiation that destroys tumors also causes changes to the salivary glands and the mucous membranes in the mouth. In addition, radiation can increase reactive oxygen species, ROS, and other free radicals that lead to oxidative stress and DNA damage. It is difficult to quantify the number of people who suffer from dry mouth, although some 30,000 to 40,000 people each year are diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Many people feel that the side effects of xerostomia are even worse than the cancer treatments.
Lessening the damage from radiation
There are three primary ways to prevent or lessen the damage to salivary glands from radiation. Adjusting the dosage or intensity of the radiation beam as well as narrowing the target may lessen the damage to salivary glands and other tissue close to the tumor. A second strategy is to actually transplant some of the salivary glands to another location in the head and neck in advance of radiation. Also, there are medicines that act as protective agents to scavenge free radicals and protect the salivary glands during the course of treatment.
Patients with xerostomia, whether it’s due to radiation or other causes, have a few tools for treating their symptoms. Doctors can prescribe medicines that stimulate the salivary glands, provided they are still functioning. Some patients have found relief with acupuncture, but there is not much scientific research yet that supports this treatment. Most often, people deal with dry mouth by using moistening agents and saliva substitutes. These only provide temporary relief, however, and maybe bad-tasting and expensive.
Replacing saliva and its components
Saliva contains natural antibiotics and antioxidants that part of the body’s defense system, so people with xerostomia are more prone to cavities and various oral infections. When dentists and doctors help patients deal with dry mouth, they often use antibiotics to control any infection. Since inflammation and oxidative stress are a large part of the problem, many practitioners advise using antioxidants because they have been shown to counteract oxidative stress and to mitigate inflammation.
PerioSciences products with topical antioxidants may prove to be helpful for dry mouth conditions. The AO ProVantage dental gel or AO Pro Rinse mouth rinse, flavored with essential oils and xylitol, are pleasant-tasting, cool and refreshing. The antioxidants, including phloretin, ferulic acid and green tea catechins, can nourish and soothe the oral tissues that lack saliva’s natural antioxidants.
If you suffer dry mouth, check with your dentist about the causes and treatments. Be sure to ask about trying AO ProVantage products.