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Saliva and your overall health

Saliva, as many of us know, is the ‘wet stuff’ in your mouth. It’s made in the salivary glands in your neck and cheek and secreted into your mouth. You might not think about it very much, if at all, but it’s truly awesome stuff and life without it is pretty difficult.

Saliva acts as a lubricant to help us to chew, enjoy and swallow food. After the food is swallowed it starts to clean the mouth. When we eat and chew the glands produce more saliva to do this.

In addition to helping us eat, saliva has a buffering capacity. Meaning that if conditions in the mouth become too acidic or alkaline it brings everything back to normal. This is very important to prevent lots of tooth decay. It also contains enzymes that start the digestive process, plus proteins and minerals that further protect against decay, gum disease and bad breath.

So you can see that life without saliva is not great. Unfortunately, having a decreased salivary flow is quite common. This can be due to illness such as disorders of the salivary glands, or systemic diseases such as Sjogren's syndrome or Parkinson’s disease. It’s also a side effect of many common medications including those prescribed for things like high blood pressure, anxiety or depression. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can cause a dry mouth and more commonly smoking and dehydration. We also have a decreased salivary flow when we are asleep.

When the saliva flow is decreased it can be quite uncomfortable. In addition we are more susceptible to oral health problems such as dental decay, gum disease and bad breath.

If you have a decreased salivary flow for any reason it is important to take action. Make sure you drink plenty of water so you don’t get dehydrated, quit smoking if you can, and see your doctor in case there’s an underlying illness or whether dry mouth causing medication can be changed.

It can also be helpful to chew some sugar free gum (chewing stimulates salivary flow). Artificial saliva as a liquid or spray can be sold over the counter at the pharmacy.

If you have a dry mouth it is very important to visit the dentist regularly as you are much more prone to dental disease. Your dentist or hygienist can give you further advice about how to manage the dry mouth and also treat any dental disease early.