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Dry mouth, or xerostomia, happens when there is not enough saliva or saliva becomes very thick. This can be a side effect of radiation therapy to the head and neck areas, some types of chemo, certain other medicines, and dehydration. The glands that make saliva can become irritated or damaged and make less saliva, or your saliva can become very thick and sticky. The level of dryness can be mild or severe.
Having a dry mouth or thick saliva can increase your risk of cavities and mouth infection. If you smoke, chew tobacco, or drink alcohol, the dryness can be worse.
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)
Bits of food or other matter on the teeth, tongue, and gums
Tongue surface looks ridged or cracked
Treatment for dry mouth and thick saliva includes increasing comfort and preventing infection or complications. Good mouth care and frequent sips of water are helpful ways to manage problems with dry mouth or thick saliva. Avoiding alcohol intake and tobacco, avoiding certain foods, and keeping caffeine and sugar (in candy, gum, or soft drinks) to a minimum can help keep a dry mouth and thick saliva from getting worse. If you are having trouble eating or are eating less, talk to your cancer care team about whether nutritional supplements may be helpful.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Brown C. Mucositis. In Brown CG, ed. A guide to oncology symptom management. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2015: 469-482.
Fall-Dickenson J, Cordes S, Berger AM. Oral complications. In DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019:-2094-2108.
Lalla, RV et al. Mucositis guidelines leadership group of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer and International Society of Oral Oncology. (2014). MASCC/ISOO evidence based clinical practice guidelines for mucositis secondary to cancer therapy. Cancer. 2014;120:1453–1461. doi:10.1002/cncr.28592
Majithia N, Hallemeier CL, Loprinzi, CL. Oral complications. In Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:607-620.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Adult cancer pain. Version 3.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/pain.pdf on September 19, 2019.
Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Symptom intervention: Mucositis. Accessed at https://www.ons.org/pep/mucositis on January 3, 2020.
Last Revised: February 1, 2020
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