It's been called cotton mouth, dough mouth, and by medical professionals, xerostomia. But most people call it dry mouth.
It's that parched, gritty, sticky feeling that comes when a person is not producing enough saliva. And it can have a big impact on your loved one's health.
The average adult produces over a quart-and-a-half of saliva a day. Besides helping to break down food and wash away particles, mineral-rich saliva serves many purposes, including limiting the growth of bacteria and viruses that cause bad breath, tooth decay and gum disease.
When there's not enough, dentures can become loose, lips can become cracked and mouth sores can develop. In severe cases, chewing and swallowing can become nearly impossible. "It feels like eating a bagel spread with peanut butter and sand," Houston dentist June Sadowsky told AgingCare.com. Dr. Sadowsky, a faculty member at the University of Texas School of Dentistry and president of the American Society for Geriatric Dentistry, says that taking frequent sips of water while eating can help ease the problem.
Patrick M. Lloyd, dean of The Ohio State University's College of Dentistry in Columbus, Ohio and also a dentist, told AgingCare.com that dry mouth is "the rule rather than the exception among the elderly "and that "the consequences can be catastrophic." Patients who haven't had a cavity in decades can suddenly find that their mouths are riddled with decay, especially around the roots where it is difficult to treat, or may find that their mouths burn or are overly sensitive to hot and cold. Appetite may wane as foods become tasteless and hard to eat.
Although Dr. Lloyd stresses that dry mouth is not a normal consequence of aging, the affliction is particularly common among the elderly, partly because nine out of 10 people over the age of 65 take medications. More than 500 drugs can cause dry mouth, including those used to treat heart problems, allergies, cancer and anxiety, according to the American Dental Association.
Although medication is the main reason patients develop dry mouth, it can have other causes as well. Among them are infections, alcohol abuse, trauma to the mouth and hormone changes (such as happen with menopause).
Chronic allergies, adenoids, blocked nasal passages and even bad posture can cause mouth breathing, which also dries out tissues. Mouth breathers also often snore or have sleep apnea, which raises the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.
Dry mouth also can be a sign or symptom of more serious illnesses, such as anemia, diabetes, Parkinson's Disease, cancer and auto-immune disorders like lupus. Sjögren's Syndrome, an auto-immune disease where white blood cells attack the glands that produce saliva and tears, is especially common among older people. About 4 million Americans suffer from the illness; 90% are women.
For all of the problems it causes, dry mouth can be overlooked by caregivers and even the sufferers themselves because its onset is often slow, New York dentist James Rodriguez told AgingCare.com. "We bring it to the attention of patients more often than they do to us," he says. Dentists can detect it because the tongue tends to have a white coating and the insides of cheeks are red—and tooth damage can be extensive. He recalls one patient who had nine root cavities appear only six months after his previous cavity-free visit. Seven of his teeth had to be extracted.