Does your child feel like his or her mouth is always dry? Does your child wake up every morning with cracked lips and complaining that his/her mouth and throat feel like sandpaper? What could be causing your child to have such a dry mouth? Is a dry mouth a sign of something serious? Will the dryness itself lead to problems?

In this article, we will discuss the sensation of having a dry mouth (xerostomia), including the following topics:

What Is Xerostomia?

Xerostomia is the medical term used to describe the subjective feeling of having a dry mouth.

Note that, although people sometimes refer to xerostomia and salivary gland hypofunction (i.e., decreased saliva production) interchangeably, the two terms are not actually interchangeable. While hypofunctioning salivary glands often (though not always) do result in the sensation of a dry mouth, children with properly-functioning salivary glands can also experience xerostomia. As an example, children who breathe through their mouths at night (discussed below) can wake up feeling parched, even if their saliva production is within the normal range.

What Causes Xerostomia in Children?

Children may experience xerostomia for a variety of reasons. Some of the more common causes of dry mouth in children include the following:

  • Certain Medications. A large number of commonly-prescribed medications can cause xerostomia in children, including certain antihistamines, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants.
  • Mouth Breathing. When children breathe through their mouths instead of their noses, it can cause their saliva to evaporate, leading to a dry mouth. Mouth breathing is especially common at night. If your child frequently wakes up in the morning complaining of a dry mouth or throat, or if your child often gets up during the night looking for a drink of water, nighttime mouth breathing might be the cause.
  • Dehydration. Saliva is approximately 99% water. Not surprisingly, several studies have found that, when your body becomes dehydrated, saliva production decreases.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can cause children’s salivary glands to produce less saliva.

What Problems Can a Dry Mouth Cause in Children?

Depending on the severity, xerostomia can be very uncomfortable for children. Children with a dry mouth may say they feel parched, their tongue feels like sandpaper, or their mouth feels sore or burns; their tongues and lips may stick to their teeth; and/or their lips might become dry and cracked.

However, the negative effects go beyond discomfort. Saliva performs a wide variety of important functions, including helping children chew, swallow and taste their food; lubricating and protecting soft tissues in the mouth and throat; washing away food particles and other debris from your child’s mouth; and helping to prevent tooth decay and erosion. Children with dry mouths might experience symptoms such as

  • Difficulty chewing food,
  • Reduced sense of taste or a distorted sense of taste (e.g., a metallic taste in their mouths),
  • Hoarseness,
  • Bad breath,
  • Cavities,
  • Dental erosion,
  • Mouth sores,
  • Fungal infections such as oral thrush, and/or
  • Difficulty swallowing food.

How Do You Treat Xerostomia in Children?

Treatment for xerostomia depends in part on the cause and whether or not it can be corrected or avoided. For example:

  • If the xerostomia is a side effect of a medication your child is taking, you might wish to discuss with the prescribing doctor whether it would make sense to try an alternative medication.   
  • If mouth breathing is the culprit, your child’s pediatric dentist or a pediatric ENT may be able to help. In some cases, a pediatric dentist may be able to recommend exercises (orofacial myofunctional therapy) and/or oral appliances to help train your child to breathe through his or her nose. In other cases, such as if your child’s mouth breathing is the result of some type of nasal blockage, a pediatric otolaryngologist may be able to help correct the problem so that your child can breathe through his or her nose properly.
  • If your child’s dry mouth is caused by dehydration, working with your child to ensure he or she drinks plenty of water each day may be sufficient.

If the root cause of a child’s xerostomia cannot be adequately addressed, there are a variety of lifestyle changes and products than can help alleviate symptoms and make your child more comfortable:

  • Carrying a water bottle and drinking plenty of water throughout the day can help your child’s mouth feel better (and may prevent your child’s xerostomia from worsening due to dehydration). As an added bonus, drinking water is good for your child’s teeth and overall health.
  • Especially in the case of mouth breathers, using a humidifier at night may help prevent your child’s mouth from drying out as much.
  • Chewing sugar-free gum can help stimulate the flow of saliva. Make sure to choose a sugar-free gum to avoid increasing your child’s risk of cavities, and never give gum to a child who is too young to chew it without swallowing it – gum can be a choking hazard for young children.
  • Children with xerostomia should avoid using mouthwashes that contain alcohol, which can make oral dryness worse.
  • There are a variety of over-the-counter mouth rinses, sprays, gels and toothpastes that are designed to temporarily relieve the symptoms of a dry mouth. If your child’s symptoms are bothersome and the suggestions listed above aren’t helping, speak with your child’s pediatric dentist or pediatrician about whether one of these over-the-counter options might help your child.

Finally, because xerostomia increases your child’s risk of developing cavities and oral infections, it’s extremely important that children with dry mouths practice excellent oral hygiene. Make sure that your child is brushing twice a day, flossing, eating a tooth-friendly diet, avoiding sugary drinks, and visiting his or her pediatric dentist at least twice a year.

If your child develops signs of oral thrush (e.g., cracked skin in the corners of the mouth or white patches on the tongue, inside the mouth or on the lips) or any other oral infections, call your child’s pediatric dentist promptly to have it evaluated.

Pediatric Dentist in Hurst, Texas

If your child has been complaining about a dry mouth, make an appointment with Hurst Pediatric Dentistry to see how we can help. Our board-certified pediatric dentist can help protect your child’s teeth against xerostomia-related decay and can work with you and your child’s other specialists to help identify the cause of your child’s dry mouth.

Hurst Pediatric Dentistry is located in Hurst, Texas, and treats pediatric patients from Hurst, Euless, Bedford, Colleyville, North Richland Hills, Southlake, Fort Worth, Irving and the surrounding area.

This article is intended to provide general information about oral health topics. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any disease or as a substitute for the advice of a healthcare professional who is fully aware of and familiar with the specifics of your case. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.


Dr. Jin Lin

Doctor Jin Lin, Board Certified Pediatric Dentist

Dr. Jin Lin is a board-certified pediatric dentist with a passion for helping children achieve healthier, more beautiful smiles. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University and his Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) degree from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. After graduating cum laude from dental school, he completed his post-doctoral pediatric dentistry training at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, where he served as chief resident and worked with children with a wide variety of special medical and dental needs, including children with rare syndromes.