If your mouth feels sticky and dry, like you’ve eaten too much cotton candy, or the edges of your mouth are cracked, or your throat feels like it’s on fire, then you might be suffering from dry mouth.

It’s one of the most common side effects of medications. Most people (and doctors) treat dry mouth as a minor inconvenience. However, dry mouth can be the root of a lot of problems, some of which are surprising, and some of which are quite serious.

What Causes Dry Mouth?

An extensive list of medications can cause dry mouth, including anti-nausea medications, antihistamines, diuretics, sedatives, and medication for hypertension, pain, incontinence, asthma, vomiting, and diarrhea, among others. Dry mouth can also be a symptom of conditions such as HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, anemia, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and mumps. Treatments for cancer, which can cause damage to salivary glands, can also be a culprit, as can nerve damage, dehydration, and the use of tobacco.

It’s Just a Minor Inconvenience, Right?

A set of minor but unattractive symptoms — like a sticky mouth, a sore throat, hoarseness, bad breath, and sores around the mouth — might indicate that dry mouth is present. Treated promptly, these aren’t a big deal. However, left unmanaged, they can snowball into a host of problems that may or may not able to be fixed later.

Saliva not only keeps the mouth moist, but it also fights bacteria in the mouth. A dry mouth means inadequate saliva, and that means that you are less able to fight off those bacteria, which in turn, can cause gingivitis. The damage can happen quickly, sometimes in less than a year, and the gums can go from healthy to being in the advanced stages of gum disease. Dry mouth also contributes to tooth decay (which can be worsened by gum disease,) mouth sores, infections of the mouth, and fungal infections, such as thrush. Worse yet, problems in the mouth are related to many health problems, from obesity and diabetes to erectile dysfunction. In short, you want to keep your mouth healthy, which means keeping is moist.

Yikes! What Do I Do?

If it’s minor, then home care may be enough, at least until you can see your usual doctor. In the meantime, drink a lot of water, suck on sugar-free candy, and use a vaporizer or anessential oil diffuser to add moisture to the air. All of these things help to restore the balance in your mouth.

If it’s a side effect of medication, then go to the prescribing doctor – he or she can try lowering your dose or prescribing a different drug. If that doesn’t work, or it’s not a side effect, but a symptom of a disease, then there are oral rinses and medications available to treat dry mouth. These are typically inexpensive, and some are even available over-the-counter.

Dry mouth doesn’t have to be a dental disaster.

When caught early, it’s easy to treat — before the damage starts to occur. However, even once your mouth is no longer dry, it’s especially important to keep up with your dental hygiene and to see your dentist twice a year, as they may have other tips or procedures. Make sure that you inform your dentist of all medications, even if it doesn’t seem relevant to you; any information you share can help keep your teeth in excellent shape for years to come.