Young or old, rich or poor, we all get dry mouth. It's one of society's great levellers. But that doesn't mean you have to suffer through it. Specialty breath freshening products can wet the tongue and eliminate odor. As a bonus, they kill the bacteria that multiply furiously on a dry palate, and they do so without relying on electric shocks (see below).
Is anyone at an especially high risk of getting cottonmouth? Sure. Elderly adults are a bit more likely to get it, and so are patients who've had radiation treatment of the neck or jaw, but, generally speaking, we all have the same Sword of Dry-Mouthed Damocles hanging over us while we sleep.
In fact, sleeping has a lot to do with it...
A nighttime problem
Plenty of conditions can cause dry mouth during the day. Anxiety, stress and even disorders like Sjogren's syndrome can leave the mouth dry as dust. (Likewise, smoking, drinking, exercising and excessive talking can parch your palate.) But, at night, there's one main cause of dryness, and that's sleeping with your mouth open.
It's pretty much unavoidable. While some people do it less often, it's virtually impossible to keep the jaws from opening a bit during the night and giving microbes the chance to run wild. In fact, this trend is so common that a recent study of radiotherapy patients suggested that all reports of dry mouth should be subcategorized as a "day" or "night" problem.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research agrees. It recommends seeing a dentist or breath clinician as soon as possible, so that they can accurately diagnose what is causing your dry mouth.
How do they do it?
There are several ways that breath specialists pinpoint the source of xerostomia (that's the scientific term for dry mouth). First, they'll take a patient history, complete with plenty of questions about your oral health routine, your habits, your sleep schedule and your tendency to mouth-breathe.
Next, they'll give you a dental examination to see how your oral tissues look. They may even perform a salivary flow rate test. This exam uses finely calibrated tools (and relatively un-embarrassing methods) to precisely measure how much you salivate. It can be very accurate. In fact, a study published in the journal Interface Oral Health Science 2011 found that salivary flow rates can even be predicted, based on your gender and body weight.
Once you've been checked out, your breath clinician will probably recommend that you start using mouth-wetting specialty breath fresheners. Such products lubricate the tongue, replacing the missing moisture and eliminating bad breath.
These fresheners certainly work better than many other treatments for dry mouth. According to a report appearing in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design, scientists have tried using pharmaceuticals, acupuncture, gene therapy and even electrostimulation.
Do these work? Some do, some don't, but it's rare to find ones as effective, inexpensive and side-effect-free as a good specialty mouthwash. Consider electrostimulation. According to a new study appearing in the journal Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology and Oral Radiology, it works all right. But is it cheap? Hardly.
The report explained that small electrical shocks, delivered from a battery-powered, retainer-like mouthpiece, can "wake up" the salivary glands. However, this form of treatment is experimental and, compared to a simple mouthwash, may cost a fortune.
So before you go licking a nine-volt battery just to wet your whistle, consider gargling with an alcohol-free mouthwash instead. It gives bacteria a jolt without all the volts.