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Some patients with dry mouth have found ginseng to be helpful for increasing moisture.
More than 80% of people with cancer experience dry mouth (called xerostomia) after radiation to the head and neck or from certain medicines. Patients can especially experience dry mouth while sleeping. The symptoms of dry mouth — sometimes called “cotton mouth” — should not be ignored. The parched sensation is not only distracting and painful but also can set the stage for infections, cavities, and tooth decay. Additionally, it can interrupt good eating habits that keep you strong and well nourished.
“It’s important to take care of mouth dryness because it can affect your health and recovery from cancer,” says Jason Hou, a pharmacist in the Integrative Medicine Service (IMS) at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). “We know what helps dry mouth.”
Here, Dr. Hou, who manages MSK’s About Herbs database, offers some natural dry mouth treatments.
For dry mouth due to antihistamines, anti-nausea medicines, or pain relievers: Your doctor may be able to switch medications to give you relief.
For dry mouth after radiation: There are prescription or over-the-counter treatments that may help, but they come with side effects.
What helps dry mouth for you will partly depend on whether you can still make some saliva. It’s a good idea to get evaluated for xerostomia before trying one or more of these home remedies.
Dr. Hou suggests making your own mouthwash out of salt and baking soda to alleviate dry mouth. The combination of water, salt, and baking soda mimics our saliva.
If you want to take a break from the mouthwash, use a personal humidifier and keep liquids nearby to sip, to help keep your mouth and throat moist. Commercially available oral rinses containing added ingredients are unnecessary, says Dr. Hou. Plain water will do just fine.
If you can still make saliva, the actions of chewing and sucking stimulate production of saliva. Try chewing sugarless gum with xylitol or sucking on lozenges. For lozenges, Dr. Hou suggests those containing slippery elm and/or marshmallow root. These herbs contain mucilage, a substance that helps to coat the tongue, mouth, and throat, and keeps moisture locked in your mouth.
Some people get relief from dry mouth by holding a few tablespoons of coconut or sesame oil in the mouth for 10 to 15 minutes without swallowing. Based on the ayurvedic medicine “oil pulling” method, this at-home approach is “a safe traditional practice for modern times,” says Dr. Hou. Using this natural method for treating dry mouth works because the oil cleans out the mouth while coating and soothing irritated spots.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), dry mouth is believed to be caused by a deficiency of fluid and/or the lack of function to generate fluid. TCM practitioners may describe these symptoms as “yin deficiency.” Depending on the person and the cause of dry mouth, specific combinations of herbs — including but not limited to American ginseng and Asian ginseng — can help nourish “yin” to restore balance in the body to generate fluids. Ask your IMS provider about these herbs or herbal formulas to consider. Before taking ginseng or any other herb, check with your doctor about side effects or interactions with other medicines. And be cautious, Dr. Hou says, about claims for yohimbe, guarana, toothache plant, and Sarcandra glabra. Some of these can have harmful effects.
To treat dry mouth, an acupuncturist inserts thin, disposable needles into your skin to increase stimulation to the mouth and throat. Most people feel little or no pain from the needles, which the practitioner removes after about 30 minutes.
A 2008 study published in the BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies journal showed that acupuncture likely works by activating the part of the brain that makes saliva. When researchers stimulated an acupuncture point on the index finger, they found the saliva-making area of the brains in healthy volunteers lit up on MRI scans. Nothing happened when the volunteers received sham (fake) acupuncture.
Another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2010, showed that people who developed xerostomia after radiation for head and neck cancers experienced lasting relief from acupuncture as opposed to painkillers and other traditional medicines. Those with the most severe mouth dryness tended to have the greatest improvement.
Acupuncture is available at MSK. Ask a member of your care team for more information.
Sometimes, cancer treatments can stop the salivary glands from working at their best. Oral lubricants, over-the-counter artificial forms of saliva, and medications that stimulate salivary glands can provide a temporary fix. Ask your oncology team what might help you. It’s also important to maintain your routine oral health checkups.
Dry mouth can be a frustrating side effect of cancer treatment, but your MSK care team can help you manage it and get relief.