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