what is dental cottonmouth - colgate au

What is Dental Cottonmouth?

If you’ve been wondering, ‘what is cottonmouth?’, you may find it helpful to know that this funny-sounding name is not a formal name but a descriptive term. Cottonmouth is used to describe a condition more commonly known as dry mouth syndrome or xerostomia. When you’re experiencing a dry ‘cottonmouth’, your body isn’t producing enough saliva. Cottonmouth can be a temporary situation, brought on by nerves or excitement, or an ongoing issue caused by certain medical conditions or by some types of medications or illegal drugs.

What Is cottonmouth?

The Australian Family Physician states that cottonmouth, or dry mouth syndrome, is a common condition affecting 10 to 30 per cent of the general population. However, not all cases of dry mouth syndrome are the same.

According to a clinical paper by Professor Laurence J Walsh from the University of Queensland School of Dentistry, the total flow rate for saliva (both stimulated and unstimulated) ranges between 500 to 1500 mL per day in an adult. Although, if your salivary glands stop producing enough saliva, you’re likely to develop a dry mouth or cottonmouth.

Saliva plays several vital roles, from helping you to digest food to keeping your oral cavity moist. It also helps to clean your mouth and maintain a neutral pH level.

Signs of cottonmouth can include a sticky or dry feeling in your mouth. You might feel like you have wads of cotton stuffed in your mouth or as if you’ve rubbed the inside of your mouth dry with a towel. In more severe cases, you might feel a burning sensation in the throat, have cracked lips or even have difficulty speaking, chewing or swallowing.

Causes of cottonmouth

There’s not one single cause of cottonmouth. However, contributing factors may include:

  • Medications. More than 500 medicines are linked to dry mouth syndrome. These include prescription allergy medications, antidepressants and sedatives, among many others. If your dentist thinks that one of your medications may be causing a dry mouth, they can collaborate with your doctor to see if changing the dose or switching to a different formulation might reduce symptoms. 
  • Medical conditions. As the Australian Family Physician notes, a common condition linked to a dry mouth is Sjogren’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation that can damage the salivary glands.
  • Chemotherapy or radiation therapy. According to the Cancer Council New South Wales, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, especially for the treatment of cancer in the head or neck, is another cause of xerostomia. Symptoms of dry mouth syndrome can linger for many months after radiation treatment. For some individuals, it can be permanent.
  • Lifestyle habits. Certain lifestyle habits, such as drinking a lot of alcohol, smoking or using tobacco products and using drugs such as cocaine, speed or marijuana, can lead to cottonmouth.

How to treat cottonmouth

Cottonmouth can be much more troublesome than just an uncomfortable feeling. Saliva contributes to a clean, healthy mouth and helps to prevent a build-up of bacterial plaque. So, individuals with an ongoing dry mouth have an increased risk of tooth decay (cavities), gum disease and other oral infections.

Treatments for cottonmouth can range from adjusting medication to addressing the underlying condition. When a dry mouth is linked to lifestyle choices, giving them up or significantly cutting back may improve symptoms. Sipping water can also help, especially during meals, as this will moisten the mouth and help with chewing and swallowing. You might also find some welcome relief by chewing gum, which can help stimulate saliva flow.

Because cottonmouth can increase your risk for tooth decay and gum disease, it’s essential you take good care of your teeth and gums. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride toothpaste strengthens teeth by remineralising weakened enamel, fighting plaque to keep gums healthy and repairing early tooth damage. A mouth rinse with fluoride can also help protect your teeth and moisten your mouth. Finally, visit your dental professional regularly for an exam and clean and for diagnosis and treatment of any disease that may be occurring.


This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.