What Is Xerostomia, and Why Is It Important?

12161206_sXerostomia, more commonly known as “dry mouth,” is a prevalent side effect of many of the drugs taken by individuals living with behavioral health disorders–and it’s more than just an inconvenience. Some of the unpleasant results of dry mouth include not tasting food well, chapped lips, difficulty speaking clearly, and oral appliances such as dentures not fitting properly.

More serious consequences include difficulty in chewing and swallowing, mouth sores, tooth decay, and irreversible periodontal disease, which can lead to additional, serious health problems. Individuals who take three or more medications daily are more likely to experience dry mouth.

Saliva is a lubricating, antimicrobial agent that helps to fight cavities by reducing acid and bacteria build-up (plaque) on teeth. It helps cleanse the mouth of food particles and replenishes minerals lost by teeth through the normal process of eating. When chronic, persistent dry mouth occurs, tooth structure begins to break down, plaque builds, gum inflammation occurs, and periodontal disease can result. This can lead to loosening and eventual loss of teeth.

According to an article in Current Psychiatry, “Few psychiatrists routinely screen patients for xerostomia, and if a patient reports this side effect, they may be unlikely to address it or understand its implications because of more pressing concerns such as psychosis or risk of suicide. Historically, education in general medical training about the effects of oral health on a patient’s overall health has been limited.It is crucial for psychiatrists to be aware of potential problems related to dry mouth and the impact it can have on their patients.

Xerostomia can be just the start of many health complications. The problem snowballs when unfavorable oral conditions worsen, and expensive procedures such as fillings or tooth extractions are required, but not addressed due to a lack of access to professional dental care. Doctors suspect that bacteria caused by dental infections may play a major role in some heart diseases.

Individuals can help address dry mouth through their diet by eating foods that stimulate the production of saliva such as apples, celery, carrots, and sugarless gum and candies.

Over-the-counter rinses, moisturizing gels, and dry mouth toothpaste can also relieve symptoms. Avoiding drying agents such as cigarettes, caffeine, and alcohol that can exacerbate the problem may be helpful. These actions won’t cure dry mouth, but can help relieve some of the symptoms and provide oral comfort.

Good oral hygiene is critical. Flossing and brushing with fluoride toothpaste or using a fluoride rinse can help preserve teeth. Dentists recommend that individuals with xerostomia have their teeth cleaned and examined three or four times per year. This poses a particular problem for many individuals living with behavioral health disorders who don’t have the necessary insurance or funds to attend even the regular recommended two dentist visits per year. Medicaid does not typically pay for routine exams and preventative treatment.

Read more about oral health and behavioral health from the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) and MedicineNet.

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