Our integrative medicine experts offer natural solutions for the intense mouth dryness that can develop for many reasons, including radiation to the head and neck and the use of certain cancer medicines.
- Extreme dryness in the mouth and throat is relatively common and often painful.
- Acupuncture is one of several natural remedies that can help you feel better.
Symptoms of dry mouth are hard to ignore. Your mouth and throat feel dry and sticky. As the flow of saliva slows down or stops altogether, your normal way of speaking, chewing, swallowing, and even tasting food may change.
More than one in ten people have intense mouth dryness. Cancer patients often get dry mouth (xerostomia in medical terms) after radiation to the head and neck, or when taking certain medicines. Whatever the cause, the parched sensation is not only distracting and painful but can set the stage for infections, cavities, and tooth decay. It can also interrupt good eating habits that keep you strong and well-nourished.
Sometimes a medicine may be the cause of mouth dryness, and a doctor can safely switch it to give you relief. But there aren’t a lot of reliable medical solutions overall, so we asked Memorial Sloan Kettering Integrative Medicine Service expert Gary Deng and pharmacist and manager of the “About Herbs” website K. Simon Yeung to weigh in on some natural remedies worth trying.
What works for you will partly depend on whether you can still make some saliva, or if that function is gone for good. Ask your doctor if you have questions. It’s smart to get formally evaluated for xerostomia before plunging ahead.
Then experiment – these are safe – and see what works!
Make Your Own Mouthwash
Dr. Yeung suggests making your own mouthwash out of saline and baking soda.
Blend 1 cup of warm water with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 1/8 teaspoon salt.
Swish in your mouth for a few seconds, then rinse out with water.
Repeat every three hours.
As a break from the mouthwash, keep other liquids nearby to sip and to keep your mouth and throat moist. Oral rinses containing added ingredients are available but unnecessary, says Dr. Yeung. “Plain old water is usually the best.”Back to top
Sugarless Chews & Lozenges
If you can still make saliva, try chewing sugarless gum or sucking on lozenges to get juices flowing. For lozenges, Dr. Yeung suggests those containing Slippery Elm. “There’s no research on this, but it makes sense,” he explains. The herb’s jelly-like substance helps to coat the tongue, mouth, and throat – and keep moisture locked in your mouth.Back to top
Some people get relief by holding a few tablespoons of coconut or sesame oil in the mouth for ten to 15 minutes without swallowing. Based on an old ayurvedic medicine “oil pulling” method, this approach is “safe and totally reasonable to try,” says Dr. Yeung. It also makes sense, since the oil cleans out the mouth while coating and soothing irritated spots. There’s no set time on how long to leave the oil in your mouth.Back to top
Ginseng and Other Herbal Remedies
Some herbalists recommend American Ginseng for increasing moisture. “There’s no strong science for this,” says Dr. Yeung, but it’s believed to “nourish yin” – which along with yang is key to finding balance in the body to help generate body fluids.
Before taking ginseng or any other herb, check with your doctor about side effects or interactions with other medicines. And be cautious, he says, about claims for yohimbe, guarana, Toothache Plant, and Sarcandra glabra. Some of these can do more harm than good.Back to top
Acupuncture, the Powerhouse Remedy
As long as the acupuncturist is skilled and experienced, this form of traditional Chinese medicine may well be your ticket to lasting relief, says Dr. Deng.
To treat dry mouth, an acupuncturist inserts ten to 20 thin, disposable needles into your skin in such a way that energy flow increases to the mouth and throat. Most people feel little or no pain from the needles, which the practitioner removes after about 30 minutes.
“Acupuncture isn’t just wishful thinking for dry mouth,” says Dr. Deng. It likely works by activating the part of the brain that makes saliva. An MSK study published in the BMC Complementary Medicine Journal found this saliva-making area lit up in the brains of healthy volunteers being tested with acupuncture. Nothing happened when the volunteers received sham (fake) acupuncture.
Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that people who developed xerostomia after radiation for head and neck cancers said painkillers and other traditional approaches didn’t work, while acupuncture gave them lasting relief. Those with the most severe mouth dryness tended to improve the most.Back to top