Dry Mouth

Dry mouth happens when there’s not enough saliva. It can be caused by mouth-breathing, or it could be a side effect of medicine, radiation treatment to the head and neck, or dehydration. (See the section called “Fluids (lack of) and dehydration.”)

What to look for

  • Dried, flaky, whitish saliva in and around the mouth
  • Thick saliva that’s more like mucus and that sticks to lips when you open your mouth
  • Trouble swallowing foods or thick liquids
  • Mouth always open to breathe (mouth-breathing dries out the mouth and throat)
  • Burning tongue
  • Bits of food or other matter on the teeth, tongue, and gums
  • Tongue surface looks ridged or cracked

What the patient can do

  • Rinse your mouth every 2 hours with a salt and soda solution. You can make this solution by adding 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda to 1 quart of warm water. Shake the solution before each use, then swish it and spit. Do not swallow it.
  • Sip liquids with meals to moisten foods and help with swallowing.
  • Add liquids (such as gravy, sauce, milk, and yogurt) to solid foods.
  • Try ice chips, sugarless hard candies, and sugarless chewing gum.
  • Keep cold water nearby for frequent sips between meals and mouth rinses.
  • Rinse or spray mouth often using artificial saliva, which is sold in drugstores.
  • Use petroleum jelly, cocoa butter, or a mild lip balm to keep lips moist.
  • Avoid hot, spicy, or acidic foods.
  • Avoid chewy candies, tough meats, and hard raw fruits or vegetables.
  • Avoid alcohol, including store-bought mouthwashes.
  • Avoid tobacco.

What caregivers can do

  • Offer small, soft meals with extra sauce or dressings for dipping.
  • Offer ice cream, gelatin desserts, ice chips, and frozen drinks.
  • Keep cold water nearby for frequent sipping.
  • Help the patient track their fluid intake, and encourage them to take in 2 to 3 quarts of liquid each day, if the cancer team approves. Ice, ice cream, sherbet, popsicles, and gelatin count as liquids.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Has a dry mouth for more than 3 days
  • Can’t take medicines or swallow pills
  • Can’t drink or eat
  • Has dry, cracked lips or mouth sores (See the section called “Mouth sores.”)
  • Has trouble breathing

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Kasper DL, et al (Eds). Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 17th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical, 2008.

Camp-Sorrell D, Hawkins RA. Clinical Manual for the Oncology Advanced Practice Nurse, Second Ed. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.

Cope DG, Reb AM. An Evidence-Based Approach to the Treatment and Care of the Older Adult with Cancer. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.

Houts PS, Bucher JA. Caregiving, Revised ed. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2003.

Kaplan M. Understanding and Managing Oncologic Emergencies: A Resource for Nurses. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.

Kuebler KK, Berry PH, Heidrich DE. End-of-Life Care: Clinical Practice Guidelines. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co. 2002.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Palliative Care. Version 1.2015. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/palliative.pdf on March 19, 2015.

Oncology Nursing Society. Cancer Symptoms. Accessed at www.cancersymptoms.org on April 3, 2013.

Ripamonti C, Bruera E. Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Advanced Cancer Patients. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Varricchio CG. A Cancer Source Book for Nurses, 8th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.

Yarbro CH, Frogge MH, Goodman M. Cancer Symptom Management, 3rd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.

Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: June 8, 2015

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please contact permissionrequest@cancer.org.