Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

Professional Reference articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Dry Mouth written for patients

Xerostomia (dry mouth) may be a side-effect of medication. It is also caused by irradiation of the head and neck region or by damage to or disease of the salivary glands. Patients with a persistently dry mouth may develop a burning or scalded sensation and have poor oral hygiene. They are prone to increased dental caries, periodontal disease, oral infections (particularly candidiasis) and intolerance of dentures. Where possible, treatment is directed at the underlying cause of dry mouth. If this is not possible, or is only partially successful, symptomatic treatment is used.

Xerostomia is common in the elderly, particularly in females with poor general health.[1]It is also seen in adolescents with type 1 diabetes.[2, 3]

The diagnosis of xerostomia is usually based on a quantitative assessment of unstimulated and stimulated whole saliva. However, there is a wide variation in the amount of saliva produced by individuals and work is ongoing to devise more accurate methods of assessing salivary gland function.[4]

  • Drugs are a common cause of dry mouth. Reduce the dose or change the drug if possible. Morphine is a common but often overlooked cause of dry mouth. Other drugs that cause dry mouth include tricyclic antidepressants, antihistamines, antimuscarinic drugs, anti-epileptic drugs, antipsychotics, beta-blockers and diuretics.[5, 6]
  • Dehydration should be treated.
  • Simple measures will often relieve symptoms of dry mouth, even if rehydration is not undertaken.
  • Anxiety can also cause dry mouth.
  • Sjögren's syndrome - check antinuclear antibody titre.

Simple measures should be used by all patients. Dry mouth may be relieved in many patients by:

  • Frequent sips of cool drinks.
  • Sucking pieces of ice.
  • Sucking sugar-free fruit pastilles.
  • Eating partly frozen melon or pineapple chunks.
  • Sugar-free chewing gum - which stimulates salivation in patients with residual salivary function.
  • Petroleum jelly - which can be applied to the lips to prevent drying and cracking.

Artificial saliva

A Cochrane review found that there is no strong evidence that any topical preparation is better than simple measures for the treatment of xerostomia.[8]Nevertheless, artificial saliva is frequently used and may help to relieve symptoms in some patients.[9]A properly balanced artificial saliva should be of a neutral pH and contain electrolytes (including fluoride) to correspond approximately to the composition of saliva.

  • Biotène Oralbalance® gel and Xerotin® oral spray are both artificial saliva preparations which have Advisory Committee on Borderline Substances (ACBS) approval for the treatment of any patient complaining of dry mouth.
  • BioXtra® gel, Glandosane® aerosol spray and Saliveze® oral spray are artificial saliva preparations which have ACBS approval only for patients whose dry mouth is secondary to radiotherapy or sicca syndrome. Saliva Orthana® spray can be prescribed for any cause of dry mouth, although the lozenges remain ACBS.

Salivary stimulants

These act by local stimulation of the salivary glands and are most effective in patients who have some residual salivary gland function.

  • Salivix® pastilles, which act locally as salivary stimulants, are also available and have ACBS approval only for patients whose dry mouth is secondary to radiotherapy or sicca syndrome.
  • SST® tablets may be prescribed for dry mouth in patients with salivary gland impairment and patent salivary ducts.
  • Sugar-free chewing gum is as effective as artificial salivas.

Long-term use of acidic products may demineralise tooth enamel. Glandosane® spray, Salivix® pastilles and SST® tablets are acidic products.

Systemic treatment

Pilocarpine
This is the only licensed oral treatment available.[7, 10] The tablets are licensed for the treatment of xerostomia following:

  • Irradiation for head and neck cancers.
  • Dry mouth and dry eyes (xerophthalmia) in Sjögren's syndrome.

It can be considered for difficult cases.

  • Pilocarpine is effective only in patients who have some residual salivary gland function. If there is no response it should be discontinued.
  • Adverse effects include a risk of increased urethral smooth muscle tone and renal colic. Other side-effects include blurred vision and dizziness. This may affect performance of skilled tasks - eg, driving, particularly at night or in reduced lighting.
  • Adequate fluid intake should be maintained to avoid dehydration associated with excessive sweating.
  • Radiotherapy-induced dry mouth does not respond well to pilocarpine. One study showed that salivary gland transfer was four times more effective in this type of patient.

Physical treatments

  • Acupuncture has been found useful in the prevention of xerostomia when administered concurrently with radiotherapy.[11]
  • A technique called acupuncture-like transelectrical nerve stimulation is currently being investigated.[12, 13, 14]

Surgical transfer of one submandibular gland to the submental space facilitates shielding of the gland during postoperative radiation therapy. Studies confirm that there is no adverse effect on the function of the gland in this position.[15]

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Original Author:
Dr Richard Draper
Current Version:
Dr Roger Henderson
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Laurence Knott
Document ID:
319 (v4)
Last Checked:
23 December 2015
Next Review:
21 December 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.