The Inside Scoop on Why Saliva Matters

Saliva isn’t something the average person really thinks about on a regular basis. In fact, we usually forget about it until something goes wrong. It’s an important function of the body because saliva helps stimulate digestion, aids in chewing and swallowing and even protects teeth.So, what happens when the production of saliva stops and does it even matter?

The medical term for dry mouth is xerostomia. It’s normal to experience it occasionally, said Dr. John Pappas, DDS, who practices dentistry at Arcadia Dental Arts in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Perhaps it comes on suddenly when nervous, stressed out or when you’re not drinking enough water,” Pappas said. “That’s nothing to be alarmed about, but it is your body telling you to take notice. Chronic dry mouth, on the other hand, can be a problem for your health. Saliva helps clear food particles from the mouth and neutralize the acids found in almost all food and drinks.”

The symptoms of dry mouth can include the obvious dry feeling of the mouth, trouble chewing and swallowing, burning feeling, dry and cracked lips, mouth sores and even infection in the mouth.Since saliva helps protect teeth, the absence of it leaves teeth vulnerable to decay and disease.

“Gum disease and cavities become more likely the longer dry mouth remains untreated,” Pappas said. “Talk to your dentist or doctor about dry mouth as soon as you notice it. There are many treatment options available and some are as simple as a mouth rinse.”

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, one of the most common causes of dry mouth is from medications because over 400 different kinds can cause xerostomia as a side effect. Three of the most likely culprits are medications for depression, allergies and high blood pressure.

Cancer treatment can damage the salivary glands which can cause temporary dry mouth complications. Since the immune system is compromised during chemotherapy and radiation, it’s even more important to seek treatment for dry mouth during cancer therapy to avoid infection in the mouth.

A less common problem occurs when the body makes too much saliva. Eating or even smelling food can increase saliva production and that is normal. However, salivary glands can become overactive and this can be annoying and uncomfortable.

Just like with dry mouth, excess saliva production can be caused by certain medications. Seizure and schizophrenia medications are some of the most common to cause side effects. Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, can also cause issues with saliva and the ability to swallow. Other health conditions that can lead to hypersalivation include cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, stroke and sometimes during pregnancy.

Thankfully there are medications that can help control the production of saliva whether the body is producing too much or too little. A simple discussion with your doctor or dentist can help protect your teeth from the complications associated with dry mouth.

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