What Causes Cottonmouth And How To Mitigate

What causes cottonmouth and how to mitigate
December 16, 2019

Dry mouth (also referred to as cottonmouth) is one of the adverse effects of cannabis consumption. Although it is neither severe nor life-threatening, it can be uncomfortable and downright annoying. Dehydration is the often-cited cause. Although seemingly plausible, it is not the cause too – at least for most people in most cases. What then could cause the mouth and the throat to feel dry, and how can it be avoided or mitigated?

Dry Mouth & Cannabis

Some smokers associated dry mouth with eye and throat irritation that comes with exposure to smoke. However, that is quickly invalidated as the condition appears even with non-smoking methods of cannabis consumption. It is also the same case with dehydration. Even a fully hydrated person experiences a degree of cottonmouth after using cannabis.


The importance of saliva is not limited to being an indicator of the need to rehydrate. Besides water, it is the remaining 2% comprising enzymes, electrolytes, and antibacterial compounds play a role in breaking down food for the digestive system. At the same time, it keeps the teeth strong and maintains oral health. Any hindrance in its production leads to a condition called Xerostomia, otherwise known as dry mouth or cottonmouth.

Three glands are responsible for the production of saliva. However, much of it is accounted for the by submandibularglands. It contains cannabinoid receptors that interact with chemicals found in the body.

Dry mouth could be caused by a variety of factors with dehydration as the most common reason. It can also be a symptom or side effect of various drugs, diseases, as well as some medical treatments.

  • Prescription and nonprescription medication including anti-depressants, decongestants, antihistamines, and diuretics
  • Treatments such as chemotherapy inflict damage on the salivary glands
  • Diseases and infections such as diabetes, HIV/AIDs, fever, and diarrhea
  • Nerve damage resulting from traumatic accidents or staying in one position for prolonged periods of time
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco
  • Using cannabis

Cannabinoids And ECS

Humans have a biological network called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). It is responsible for producing cannabinoids and processing it through receptors located all over the body. Mostly, it can be found in the submandibular glands that make 70% of saliva.

Cannabis also contains cannabinoids, hundreds of which are unique. Once it enters the bloodstream and circulates around the body, these compounds bind to the ECS receptors. One, in particular, is THC. It has a similar structure to anandamide, a chemical that interferes with messages sent by the nervous system to initiate saliva secretion.

Because of the similarity, the belief is that THC, along with other cannabinoids from cannabis, blocks the signals that the salivary glands send to the brain and vice versa. It explains why people experience dry mouth regardless if of the method of consumption.

It also means that in most cases, dehydration is not the cause of having cottonmouth. Instead, it is the lack of saliva production that causes the dryness. It then explains why fully-hydrated people also experience it.


The term ‘cottonmouth’ came about because of the sensation of having cotton in the mouth during a dental procedure. There are also other symptoms:

  • A sore throat
  • Thirstiness
  • Thick and stringy saliva
  • Dry and sticky feeling in the mouth
  • Split skin in the lips especially at the corners
  • Difficulty talking as well as chewing and swallowing

People with dentures may also find it difficult to insert the frame of removable teeth. Not only that, the tongue also tends to stick to the roof of the mouth.


Occasionally experiencing dry mouth does not cause any harm over the long term. If it occurs, the symptoms last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. However, if it continually recurs, then it could turn into a chronic issue that leads to serious oral health problems.

Chronic xerostomia could cause some of the following:

  • Gum disease. Problems in the gum usually develop because the lack of saliva makes it more susceptible to bacteria from plaque and tartar. As the decay reaches the supporting structures, it causes the teeth to loosen and come off.
  • Enamel erosion. Saliva neutralizes acid in the mouth. Without the added protection, the enamel on the teeth is exposed to infection, decay, and susceptible to erosion.
  • Tooth damage. Plaque usually builds up faster when the mouth is dry. Not only that, food stuck in the teeth, as well as acids, will cause the teeth to rot.
  • Dental staining. Discoloration of the teeth is high among people with a persistently dry mouth.

Getting Rid Of A Dry Mouth

The cause of dry mouth is THC and other cannabinoids causing interference resulting in a severely reduced production of saliva. Therefore, there is no way to completely preventing it from occurring when using or consuming cannabis. However, there are remedies that could help mitigate the symptoms. Furthermore, there are also other things that should be avoided so that the condition does not worsen.

Dry lips of a woman

Quick Remedies

  • Sip water. Drinking too much water in a short amount of time can actually aggravate the dryness. Rather than relieving the cottonmouth, it reduces the oral mucous film lining the mouth. The proper way to hydrate is to sip small amounts of water frequently through a straw to helps moisturize the tissues and maintain moisture levels.
  • Chew. The act of chewing stimulates salivary glands to produce more fluid to help food travel smoothly from the mouth to the stomach. Also, the saliva produced through masticatory stimulation contains more ions which are not only beneficial in relieving the discomfort caused by a cottonmouth but also remineralizes enamel.
  • Breathe through the nose. Breathing from the mouth is among the top causes of a cottonmouth. It dries the mouth quickly and continually interferes with the salivary flow. On the other hand, breathing through the nose adds moisture to the air being inhaled so that the lungs and bronchial tubes are not dry.
  • Use a fluoride toothpaste, rinse, or gel. Fluoride-based products are usually prescribed by dentists for those with dry mouth to prevent long-term damage to overall oral health. The temporary increase of fluoride in saliva protects the teeth better. Add moisture to the air with a room humidifier. Dry ambient air, which is a common feature among many modern homes, can contribute to the feeling of dryness. Using a humidifier helps mitigate the sensation of dryness especially at night.

Avoid Worsening The Condition

Some foods or drinks not only can worsen the symptoms of dry mouth but it could also contribute to oral health problems as well as increase the risk of damage to tissue in the cheeks, gums, and throat.

  • Alcohol. Without saliva as an added layer of protection, alcohol can irritate the mucous in the mouth and make it more susceptible to inflammation. It also exacerbates the cottonmouth through its diuretic properties, which rapidly removes water from the blood through urine.
  • Coffee, black or green tea, and other caffeinated drinks. A joint 2016 study conducted by the Weill Cornell Medical College and the University of Washington found that caffeine, a methylxanthine, can significantly decrease saliva production through adrenergic mechanisms. As such, it can exacerbate the effects of the dry mouth.
  • Smoking. Cigarettes and other tobacco products aggravate the cottonmouth by slowing down the creation of saliva. Moreover, the saliva produced is usually thicker, serous, and less effective in maintaining oral health.
  • Sugary and spicy foods or drinks. The body has a hard time breaking down sweets without saliva. With sugar stuck in the teeth and the mouth, the risk for tooth decay and oral infections – both of which interfere with the production of saliva – is higher. Meanwhile, eating spicy food leaves a burning sensation in the mouth as well as a sore throat. At times, it can cause blisters in the soft tissue and make it difficult to eat and talk. Even sleeping habit is affected.
  • Dry snacks. Crackers and chips have sharp edges that can cut the soft, delicate tissue in the inner cheek. It is difficult to swallow with a dry mouth and may not even travel smoothly down the throat. Moreover, many of these snacks are doused in salt which can irritate the mouth.

Foods And Drinks

Having a few glasses of water is usually the best choice for relief. Although some foods and beverages should be avoided, others could actually help mitigate the symptoms.

  • Xylitol. The natural substance, derived from fibrous plants such as oats, corns, and raspberries, is commonly used as a substitute for sweetener. Unlike sugar, it stimulates the nerves responsible for producing saliva and encourages better salivary flow.
  • Sugar-free or reduced sugar candy. Lollipops, bubble gums, mints, and lozenges which are totally free or contain reduced amounts of sugar work as salivary stimulants. It should be dissolved slowly rather than chewed. Sucking on honey-dipped lemon or orange slices is also another option.
  • Herbal tea. Caffeinated teas worsen the dryness while herbal teas soothe it. Not only that, but the infusions also calm irritation and reduce soreness in the throat. Squeezing in a bit of lemon juice will add to its effects.
  • Cough drops. Oral demulcents get rid of the feeling of cotton in the mouth by coating the mucous membranes with a moist film. It works faster compared to sugar-free candy but can be used together as a supplement.
  • Cough drops. Oral demulcents get rid of the feeling of cotton in the mouth by coating the mucous membranes with a moist film. It works faster compared to sugar-free candy but can be used together as a supplement.

Can Only Mitigate But Not Avoid

Adverse reactions are mostly nuisances that come with the use of cannabis. In particular, feeling the mouth and throat dry is a condition that every person who has used weed has experienced to a certain degree.

Woman smoking weed

Although it can be uncomfortable, there are ways to mitigate the symptoms. At the same time, there are also foods and drinks that should be avoided. The only way not to experience having cottonmouth using cannabis is not to use it in the first place. In the end, it is a compromise between accepting this adverse effect in exchange for the benefits.

The consumption of cannabis should be kept in moderation. And, most especially, if the strain contains an insane amount of THC.