Xerostomia: The Significance of Dry Mouth for the Elderly


Everyone experiences dry mouth at some time — that sticky, sometimes gritty feeling that comes from feeling parched. In fact, dry mouth occurs when your mouth isn't producing enough saliva. Xerostomia, which is the medical term for dry mouth, is more than just a discomfort. It can have detrimental effects on your health. These effects are especially significant in the elderly.


The Symptoms of Xerostomia


Xerostomia is more than just feeling thirsty, though frequent thirst is a common symptom. In fact, xerostomia not only causes that dry mouth feeling but can manifest as burning or tingling. Dry mouth can result in sores, split skin, and even a raw tongue. Sufferers can even develop a problem with swallowing or speaking.
Unfortunately, dry mouth is especially common in senior citizens. What's more, if the elderly person is under the care of others, xerostomia may be overlooked.


The Causes of Xerostomia


At its heart, xerostomia is caused by the salivary glands producing too-little saliva. The causes of the under-production vary. With senior citizens, dry mouth often occurs because of medications they're taking. For example, elderly people are more likely to be taking drugs that prevent urinary incontinence, which carry the side effect of xerostomia.
Another common cause of dry mouth is a chronic disorder such as diabetes, hormone imbalances, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Again, these disorders are more common in the elderly.


The Medical Consequences of Xerostomia

Saliva is an important part of not only oral hygiene but overall digestion. Therefore, when there's not enough saliva present, the medical significance goes beyond feeling uncomfortable. For example, bacteria can build up in the mouth if it's not being carried away by saliva. This buildup can lead to increased cavities, gum disease, and even tooth loss.
Naturally, all of these results can occur in anyone with dry mouth, regardless of age. However, the elderly often have less wiggle room in their oral health. They are more likely to have extensive bridgework, crowns, fillings, and other dental work. If they start developing more cavities or gum disease, their existing dental framework can start to collapse.
Insufficient saliva can lead to loose dentures, which tends to affect the elderly as well. This issue can combine with the cracked lips, muted taste buds, difficulty swallowing, and mouth sores also associated with xerostomia. All those factors combined can lead to the senior citizen feeling reluctant to eat, which naturally can lead to malnutrition.


The Management of Xerostomia

The main method for managing dry mouth should be obvious — drinking plenty of fluids. You should make a habit of having water or other beverages close at hand for regular sipping. However, avoid any beverages that are high in sugar or caffeine. Not only are they unhealthy, but they can actually make the xerostomia worse.
In that vein, if you're a caregiver, encourage your elderly charge to take in liquids while eating. This should look like taking a sip of water to wet the mouth, taking a bite of food, and washing it down with another sip of water.
It's also possible to stimulate the salivary glands. One way is by chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugar-free candy. Your dentist may even recommend saliva substitutes such as carmellose, hyprolose, or hyetellose. These substitutes come as a lozenge, gel, spray, or solution similar to a mouthwash.
The best method for managing xerostomia is getting regular checkups with a dentist.


The Treatment of Xerostomia

In severe cases of dry mouth, dentists can turn to fluoride trays or saliva stimulants. Fluoride trays consist of trays made to fit the elderly person's mouth. They fill the tray with fluoride and wear it overnight. The purpose of such trays is to maintain the existing tooth enamel. Saliva stimulants include pilocarpine and cevimeline. They are pills that internally promote the production of saliva.
Whether you're a caregiver or facing your own golden years, xerostomia is a common condition you should be on the lookout for. Visit Kenneth M. Schweizer, DDS, PA, for any dental health concerns you have.