When it comes to oral health, most Americans think about keeping their teeth and gums healthy. But there is an important player in the game of oral health that is often overlooked — saliva. Without saliva, food wouldn’t taste as good, tooth decay would increase and digestion could be more difficult. Michael Brennan, DDS, MHS, director of the Sjögren’s Syndrome and Salivary Disorders Center at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., provides more information on the benefits of saliva.
Q: Besides making things easier to chew and swallow, why do we have saliva?
A: Saliva has many important functions within the mouth and beyond. Importantly, it is your mouth’s best natural defense against decay. Saliva neutralizes acid and clears sugars from the mouth. If you are not producing enough saliva, then you’re at a higher risk for tooth decay. Decreased saliva can also lead to serious gastrointestinal problems, as saliva is necessary to move food from your mouth through your intestines and provides enzymes that are crucial in aiding digestion. Saliva is also extremely important for speech and can lead to a diminished quality of life if you can’t effectively communicate.
Q: How do I know if I have enough saliva?
A: If you have one or more of the following symptoms, you may not be producing enough saliva:
- Difficulty talking, chewing or swallowing
- Sore or cracked tongue
- Dry or burning throat
- Dry or peeling lips
- Difficulty tasting food
- Oral yeast infections
- Increased dental cavities
- Digestive problems, such as the inability to process food, and other serious problems like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Q: Can’t people with dry mouth just drink more water?
A: Keeping your mouth moist by sipping small amounts of water during the day can help reduce dry-mouth symptoms. However, drinking too much or “over-sipping” can actually wash away your saliva, making dry-mouth symptoms even worse. Lemon juice in water can help stimulate saliva flow, but if symptoms continue, and you find yourself taking sips of water constantly, talk to your doctor. Care with the use of sugar or acidic-type sweeteners must be used, as these can lead to dental decay or erosion in someone with decreased salivary function.
Chronic dry mouth can be a symptom of dehydration or an underlying medical condition such as Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disorder where the immune cells attack and destroy the moisture-producing glands. Dry mouth and dry eyes are the hallmark symptoms of this condition.
Nine out of 10 people diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome are women, with the average age of symptom onset in the 40s. Dryness symptoms associated with Sjögren’s syndrome often worsen during menopause. In fact, many patients with dryness attribute them to menopause or something else and do not seek the help they need.
Q: What should I do if I think I might not have enough saliva or have chronic dry-mouth symptoms?
A: Talk to your doctor or dentist if you experience one or more of the symptoms listed above. While over-the-counter treatments and behavioral changes may provide some relief, your doctor may prescribe treatment depending on the cause, frequency and severity of your symptoms. If your dry-mouth symptoms are left untreated, you could be at risk for more serious health conditions and complications.