By June Fletcher
Dry mouth, also known as cotton mouth, can have serious consequences for seniors, including gum disease, infections and tooth decay and loss. But there are many ways to treat the condition:
Avoid over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants. These tend to dry out mucus secretions. Houston dentist June Sadowsky, a faculty member at the University of Texas School of Dentistry and president of the American Society for Geriatric Dentistry, told AgingCare.com that saline nasal sprays are better.
Talk with your parent's doctor. While it's never a good idea to stop taking prescription medication because of an unpleasant side effect, ask your parent's doctor if a lower dose or different drug could eliminate dry mouth.
Some prescription medications can also help dry mouth in certain cases. Amifostine protects mouth cells in cancer patients from the drying effects of radiation and chemotherapy, while pilocarpine hydrochloride and cevimeline help Sjögren's Syndrome patients.
Talk with your parent's dentist. Since elderly people don't always realize that they have dry mouth, caregivers should be on the lookout for warning signs, like halitosis, and mention them to the dentist, New York dentist James Rodriguez told AgingCare.com.
Dentists can craft customized treatment plans for patients with dry mouth, according to Patrick M. Lloyd, dean of The Ohio State University's College of Dentistry in Columbus, Ohio. These could include using a motorized toothbrush and mouthwash with a high fluoride content. Your parent also may be asked to come for more frequent checkups and have X-rays more often to check for decay.
Increase your parent's fluid intake. Make sure that your parent keeps a glass of water nearby, or sucks on ice chips or sugarless Popsicles. But eliminate caffeine as well as alcohol—including mouthwashes that contain alcohol-- as these are both dehydrating. Some alternative medicine practitioners recommend green, chamomile or ginger tea to boost saliva production.
Keep a spray bottle handy. Simply spraying an elderly person's mouth with water whenever it feels dry is an effective way to keep the mouth moist, Dr. Sadowsky says. And since it only adds a little moisture, it doesn't substantially increase the number of bathroom trips.
Encourage your parent to stop smoking. Smoking tobacco or marijuana decreases production of saliva and irritates mucus membranes.
Provide a humidifier. Household air can become Sahara-dry in the winter, which can exacerbate sleep apnea and other breathing problems, especially at night. Look into installing a whole-house humidifying system in your parent's home, or if that is too costly, use portable humidifiers, especially in the bedroom.
Offer gum or hard candy. To prevent tooth decay, make sure that the gum or candy is sugarless, or look for mints or lozenges that are specifically made to relieve dry mouth.
Avoid problem foods. Excessively spicy, salty or acidic foods can dry the mouth and also cause gastric disturbances. However, bitter-tasting foods, though unpalatable, stimulate saliva flow.
Encourage your parent to rinse and brush after every meal. Brushing is best, but if that's not possible, rinsing with water can help dislodge food particles, Dr. Sadowsky says. Since dry mouths tend to be acidic, which promotes bacterial growth, consider brushing with toothpaste that has baking soda or other ingredients that make a mouth's pH more basic.
Look into oral moisturizers and salivary substitutes. A number of products are designed to help moisten the mouth or simulate saliva. You can buy them in a drugstore without a prescription, but not every pharmacy carries them. Some have ingredients that can help prevent tooth decay as well as soothe tissues. They come in gels, sprays and rinses.
Artificial saliva doesn't have the digestive enzymes and antibacterial properties of real saliva. Instead, they have cellulose derivatives, glycerin or other ingredients to increase stickiness and mouth moisture. However, Dr. Sadowsky says that older patients often don't like the taste of artificial saliva and find it greasy. Cutting it with water sometimes helps, she says.