Xerostomia: etiology, recognition and treatment

J Am Dent Assoc. 2003 Jan;134(1):61-9; quiz 118-9. doi: 10.14219/jada.archive.2003.0018.


Background: Clinicians may encounter symptoms of xerostomia, commonly called "dry mouth," among patients who take medications, have certain connective tissue or immunological disorders or have been treated with radiation therapy. When xerostomia is the result of a reduction in salivary flow, significant oral complications can occur.

Types of studies reviewed: The authors conducted an Index Medicus--generated review of clinical and scientific reports of xerostomia in the dental and medical literature during the past 20 years. The literature pertaining to xerostomia represented the disciplines of oral medicine, pathology, pharmacology, epidemiology, gerodontology, dental oncology, immunology and rheumatology. Additional topics included the physiology of salivary function and the management of xerostomia and its complications.

Results: Xerostomia often develops when the amount of saliva that bathes the oral mucous membranes is reduced. However, symptoms may occur without a measurable reduction in salivary gland output. The most frequently reported cause of xerostomia is the use of xerostomic medications. A number of commonly prescribed drugs with a variety of pharmacological activities have been found to produce xerostomia as a side effect. Additionally, xerostomia often is associated with Sjögren's syndrome, a condition that involves dry mouth and dry eyes and that may be accompanied by rheumatoid arthritis or a related connective tissue disease. Xerostomia also is a frequent complication of radiation therapy.

Conclusions and clinical implications: Xerostomia is an uncomfortable condition and a common oral complaint for which patients may seek relief from dental practitioners. Complications of xerostomia include dental caries, candidiasis or difficulty with the use of dentures. The clinician needs to identify the possible cause(s) and provide the patient with appropriate treatment. Remedies for xerostomia usually are palliative but may offer some protection from the condition's more significant complications.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Candidiasis, Oral / etiology
  • Cholinergic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Dental Caries / etiology
  • Humans
  • Lubrication
  • Palliative Care
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Saliva, Artificial / therapeutic use
  • Xerostomia* / chemically induced
  • Xerostomia* / complications
  • Xerostomia* / diagnosis
  • Xerostomia* / etiology
  • Xerostomia* / therapy


  • Cholinergic Agents
  • Saliva, Artificial