Don’t Let Meds Desert Older Adults

Novelist C. S. Lewis once wrote, “How incessant and great are the ills with which a prolonged old age is replete.” Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about four out of every five older adults suffer from a chronic condition, and half have at least two.1

Often, those chronic conditions are treated with a variety of prescription medications. During National Healthy Aging Month, Delta Dental, the nation’s largest dental benefits provider, cautions older adults to guard against a dangerous side effect of more than 400 prescribed and over-the-counter medications – dry mouth.2

As it is medically defined, dry mouth is the result of a reduction of salivary output or quality. But dry mouth is more than just irritating and mildly uncomfortable; it can also increase the risk of tooth decay, gum disease and other oral infections. Many medications that treat chronic illnesses – such as hay fever, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and depression – are known to have dry mouth as a side effect.3

The New York Times recently attributed the dry mouth that results from many prescription medications as a major contributor to the rapidly deteriorating oral health of nursing home residents.4 The American Dental Association (ADA) has even advocated for warning-label information on these types of “xerogenic” medications to promote awareness of the potential oral health complications associated with drug-induced dry mouth.3 According to the ADA, chronic dry mouth is a common adverse effect for each of the following medication groups:3

  • Cardiovascular medications (such as diuretics or calcium channel blockers)
  • Anticholinergic agents for treatment of urinary incontinence (e.g., oxybutynin and tolterodine)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (e.g., amitriptyline)
  • Anti-psychotic agents (e.g., chlorpromazine)
  • Anti-Parkinson’s medications (e.g., benzatropine)
  • Anti-allergy medications (e.g., antihistamines)

If your mouth becomes dry after taking a medication, you may want to mention it to your physician. Sometimes, an equally effective substitute medication can be prescribed that does not have the same side effect. To help you maintain good oral health and stimulate saliva, your dentist might suggest sipping water or sucking on ice chips frequently, avoiding alcohol, caffeine and tobacco products, chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on sugar-free candies.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy Aging at a Glance (2011). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/AAG/aging.htm

 2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health, 2000.

3 Warning Label Information on Medications Associated with Xerostomia (Dry Mouth). American Dental Association. http://www.ada.org/sections/newsAndEvents/pdfs/ltr_dry_mouth_110427.pdf

4 Nursing Homes’ Dental Problems. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/video/2013/08/05/health/100000002374631/nursing-homes-dental-problems.html?smid=tw-share

“Dry Mouth.” National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health, March 20, 2010. http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/OralHealth/Topics/DryMouth Accessed 2010.