Hundreds of medications produce a common side-effect you may not recognize
Advances in drug therapies have improved the health and quality of life of millions of Canadians. Today, we have more options and more effective medications to treat and manage many serious diseases, including the most pervasive chronic diseases in Canada, such as heart disease and diabetes.
It is not unusual for people with chronic diseases to take prescription drugs every day, for their entire lives. An estimated 3.5 million Canadians take daily medications, and many older than age 45 take at least two medications a day.
While drug treatments are producing many benefits, many also produce side-effects that may need to be managed on an ongoing basis.
One of the medication side-effects that many Canadians may know little about is a condition with the clinical term of “xerostomia” – a state of excessive oral dryness more commonly called “dry mouth.”
The condition stems from a reduction in the flow of saliva in the mouth. Loss of saliva can cause harmful effects to oral health, and to overall health and well-being.
Dental health professionals are seeing growing numbers of patients with dry mouth. “Increasing medication use is a huge reason why we are seeing an escalation in this condition,” says Marion Kaiser, a dental hygienist in Edmonton with more than 30 years’ experience. “More than 400 medications, including many that are over-the-counter, produce dry mouth symptoms as a side-effect.”
Dry mouth affects one in four adults in Canada. As the number of medications used increases, so does the risk for dry mouth. For those taking two medications, the risk goes up by 40 per cent, and seniors who take six or more daily pills sees their risk surge by 65 per cent.
Other causes are cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation for head and neck cancers, certain diseases and, sometimes, aging. Additionally, contributors to dry mouth include caffeine, smoking and using mouthwash with alcohol.
Because medication use is the number-one cause of dry mouth and older Canadians are more likely to be on multiple medications, they are particularly at risk. However, other age groups are also affected.
“People often believe that only older people need to worry about the condition, but it’s important to understand that dry mouth can also be a problem for people of any age, including children,” says James DiMarino, an experienced dentist who serves as country medical affairs director for oral care with GSK Consumer Healthcare.
“Children using asthma inhalers or taking ADHD or other behavioural medications may also be prone to dry mouth. Problems can also arise for children taking allergy medications and decongestants,” he says.
Pregnant women can also be vulnerable to dry mouth related to morning sickness or acid reflux, says Dr. DiMarino. Pregnancy can also increase a woman’s risk of gingivitis – inflammation of the gums – and “a combination of gingivitis and dry mouth can raise the risk of serious oral health problems,” he explains.
Dry mouth is difficult to self-diagnose and easy to treat improperly. One of the challenges is that saliva may be reduced by 50 per cent before a person recognizes the symptoms of dry mouth, and by that time, oral problems may have already set in.
That is why dentists and dental hygienists want to raise awareness of dry mouth – a side-effect of some medications that is increasingly common and important to manage properly, to protect people against negative effects on their oral health, and to maintain overall health and quality of life.
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