Five Natural Remedies for Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

By Andrea Peirce,

A bowl of ginseng root sitting next to a teapot.
Summary

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.

Highlights
  • 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.


  1. Blend 1 cup of warm water with 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 1/8 teaspoon salt.

  2. Swish in your mouth for a few seconds, then rinse out with water.

  3. 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.”

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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.

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Edible Oils

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.  

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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.

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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.

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Comments

Hi,
Due to surgery and radiation to treat tongue cancer, I have lost booth lower saliva glands (one removed, the other not-functioning due to radiation), I have a dry mouth whenever lying flat. Would the above suggested remedies (herbs and acupuncture) also serve whe the glands do not work? Would they be able to revive the gland that was hit by radiation?
Thanks for answering!

Dear Gaston, we sent your inquiry to Dr. Yeung and he responded:

"These remedies work by supplementing fluid or by conserving existing moisture to relieve dry mouth. Acupuncture has been shown to stimulate salivary flow. However, it is unclear if any of these treatments can revive salivary gland function."

If you would like to learn more about complementary therapies like acupuncture, please visit the Integrative Medicine Service section of our website at www.mskcc.org/integrativemedicine.

Thank you for reaching out to us.

I was treated at MSK with chemo/radiation treatment for tonsil cancer, and experience a much drier mouth and throat at night time, when lying down-even with the use of a humidifier. It is also worse with cold weather. Can you please explain why this happens? Thank you!

Dear Jessica, we're very sorry to hear that you're experiencing this. Radiation therapy to the head and neck region can damage the salivary glands, which is why this is such a common side effect. We recommend you discuss this with your MSK healthcare team. They may be able to refer you for acupuncture at our Integrative Medicine Center or for other treatments. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

My husband is suffering from dry mouth due to radiation treatment from throat cancer. I am having extreme trouble finding an accupuncturist that is skilled in this area. Do you have a list of practioners? we are in orange county ca

Dear Christine, we're sorry to hear that your husband is going through this. We recommend that you contact a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in your area and get recommendations from them for a local practitioner. You can find a list at: https://www.cancer.gov/research/nci-role/cancer-centers/find#California

Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you and your husband.

Hello, my 6-year old son was diagnosed with NHL (Burkitt) and is now on his 2nd block of chemo (BFM 95 protocol). I have been a patient at MSKCC a few years ago (thyroid cancer), but we are now back in my home country (Brazil) and he's been treated here at Boldrini Child Cancer Center.
The worst side-effect to him so far has been mucositis, which makes it hard for him to eat/swallow and even open his mouth. The doctor here suggested Biotene mouthwash, but it seems that they no longer have enzymes in their formula. I found a different brand with enzymes (TheraBreath dry mouth), but it's really tingling and hard for him to use in the days it's most needed. I'm not sure the problem is dry mouth exclusively, or simply the mouth cells dying due to chemo. I wonder whether acupuncture would work for his case, and also whether I could apply coconut oil in his mouth as a form of edible oil.
Thank you! Priscila

Dear Priscila, we're sorry to hear about your son's diagnosis and side effects. If you seek out an acupuncturist, it's important to find one who is experienced in working with people who have cancer. Because he is so young, you should discuss this with his doctor first. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to both of you.

I recently(April) had ba heart attack due to taking Phentermine 37.5mg a day. Well, the Phentermine made my mouth very dry. I have not taken the Phentermine since my heart attack but I'm still experiencing dry mouth. I'm not on anything else that causes dry mouth. Are my salivary glands damaged because of the Phentermine?

Dear Michelle, we're sorry to hear about your health concerns. We recommend that you discuss these side effects with the doctor who prescribed the medication. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

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