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.

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
  • 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.

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

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