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Why is my Saliva thick?

Wondering why you have thick, stringy, or sticky saliva?  You’re in the right place.  Keep reading to find out what causes thick saliva, and what you can do to get rid of it.    

 

What is saliva?

Saliva is a fluid produced by your salivary glands, which are located throughout your mouth.  It’s made up of water, electrolytes, proteins, enzymes and mucins, and allows us to do things like speak, eat, and swallow [1, 2]. Learn more about saliva.

 


 

What causes thick saliva?

Saliva thickness, or viscosity, is caused by a number of different factors.  Stimulated saliva – which is saliva produced when we chew or taste/smell something we like – normally has a lower viscosity than unstimulated saliva [3, 4].  This makes it easier for us to swallow food and drink, and also allows us to speak properly.

If your saliva is too thick, swallowing will be uncomfortable, and you might feel as though you need to drink water or spit in order to talk properly. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons you might be experiencing thick or stringy saliva. 

 

Dehydration

Saliva is 99% water, so it makes sense that if you don’t drink enough, your body will produce less saliva [2].  

Studies have found that salivary flow rates (how much saliva your body produces) and mucus spinnability (the elasticity of the mucus in your saliva) decrease and increase respectively as you get more dehydrated [6].  This means that you aren’t just producing less saliva if you haven’t drunk enough – the saliva you do create is actually becoming stickier and more mucus-like.   

Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

Dry mouth, also known as xerostomia, is a common medical condition that affects 20% of Australians, a number which creeps up to 25% for people aged 50+ years.

Dry mouth occurs when your salivary glands don’t produce enough saliva to keep the inside of your mouth wet.  This can be caused by:

  • Dehydration
  • Radiation treatment for cancer
  • Certain types of medication
  • Extremely dusty or dry environmental conditions     
  • Overconsumption of alcohol, sugar or caffeine 
  • Smoking cigarettes or recreational drugs
  • Trauma to the salivary glands
  • Lots of talking (lecturing, teaching, telemarketing)
  • Pregnancy
  • Other health conditions, like dysphagia, diabetes or HIV/AIDS

Because your mouth isn’t creating enough saliva to function properly, you might feel as though the saliva you do have is sticky or thick. Discover natural treatments for dry mouth.

Head and Neck Cancer Treatments

Radiation therapy for cancers in your head or neck can cause a variety of unpleasant side-effects, including a reduction in saliva production [10].  
This can cause thicker, stickier saliva, as well as related conditions like dry mouth.  A number of studies have indicated that this lowered saliva production rate may be a semi-permanent side-effect, continuing for at least 12 months after patients have finished radiation therapy [10].      

Cold or Blocked Nose


Sometimes, your saliva can feel sticky and thick even if it’s flowing normally.  When you have a cold, a blocked nose, or postnasal drip, you might find you’re regularly coughing up mucus or phlegm, which can cause your saliva to become stringy and viscous.   

 

Other health conditions

Sometimes, thick saliva might indicate the presence of other health conditions, like cancer or Sjögren’s Syndrome [11, 12].  If you suspect your thick saliva might be caused by an underlying health problem, consult a qualified health practitioner for advice.  

Why does my saliva get thick when I run?

If you’re here because you’re concerned about the way your saliva seems to get thicker when you exercise, don’t worry – it’s perfectly normal.
There are a couple of reasons why your saliva seems thicker when you’re running or doing other high-intensity exercise:

  • You’re probably breathing through your mouth, which can contribute to a feeling of dryness.
  • If you’re sweating a lot, you could be mildly dehydrated, which decreases saliva production and increases mucus thickness.
  • Exercising at a moderate level or higher temporarily increases production of the mucin MUC5B, which is responsible for the viscosity of your saliva [9].  

There isn’t really much you can do about thick saliva while exercising.  If it’s bothering you, try rinsing and spitting with water to clear your mouth, or spray a dry mouth spray like Osmist into your mouth to thin out your saliva.  

 

How to Get Rid of Thick Saliva

Getting rid of thick saliva can be easy or almost impossible, depending on the cause.  

If your thick saliva is the result of a temporary condition like dehydration, you can try drinking more water.  Smoker?  Consider quitting – your loved ones, finances and health will thank you.   

When thick saliva occurs as a result of cancer treatments, cystic fibrosis, or other chronic conditions, treating the underlying cause may not be an option.  If that’s the case, it’s time to think about management strategies.

Here are a few easy ways you can manage thick saliva [7]:

  • Rinse your mouth before eating with a solution of 225 millilitres of water mixed with half a teaspoon of salt and baking soda.
  • Regularly rinse your mouth with sparkling water.
  • Use a humidifier in your home, car and workspace, especially when you’re sleeping, when the air is dry, or when you’re using air conditioning.
  • Drink fluids throughout the day.  There are no hard and fast rules about how much water you should be drinking, but most experts agree that at least 2 litres is a good rule-of-thumb.
  • Eat fresh papaya, or drink fresh papaya juice.  Papain is an active enzyme in papaya that can help break down thick saliva [8].  Try freezing the fresh juice in ice cubes, and sucking on them throughout the day.
  • Eat fresh pineapple, or drink fresh pineapple juice [8].  Bromelain is an active enzyme in papaya that can help break down thick saliva and increase salivary flow rate [8].  Try freezing the fresh juice in ice cubes, and sucking on them throughout the day.
  • Chew sugar-free gum – stimulated saliva has a lower viscosity than unstimulated saliva.
  • Use a natural dry mouth spray like Osmist.  Osmist contains papain to improve saliva viscosity, grapeseed extract to increase salivary flow rate, and peppermint oil to improve your breath.  Spray one to two pumps directly into your mouth every three hours to keep your saliva at a normal thickness.            

If you’ve tried all the above tips and you’re still suffering from thick saliva, don’t worry.  Specialists like speech pathologists, dietitians and dentists can help you get to the bottom of the problem and find ways to treat or manage it.  Book an appointment with your local GP to seek a referral, or head straight to a specialist for advice.      

Medical information on Osmist.com.au is merely information and is not the advice of a medical practitioner. This information is general advice and was accurate at the time of publication. For more information about oral care and your individual needs, seek the advice of a qualified medical professional. 

 

References

[1] Tiwari, M. (2011) Science behind human saliva. Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine.  2(1), 53–58. DOI: 10.4103/0976-9668.82322

[2] Humphrey, S. P. & Williamson, R. T. (2001) A review of saliva: Normal composition, flow, and function. The Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry. 85(2), 162–169. DOI: 10.1067/mpr.2001.113778 

[3] Gomar-Vercher, S., Simón-Soro, A., Montiel-Company, J. M., Almerich-Silla, J. M. & Mira, A. (2018) Stimulated and unstimulated saliva samples have significantly different bacterial profiles. PLoS One. 13(6).  DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0198021

[4] Gittings, S., Turnbull, N., Henry, B., Roberts, C. J. & Gershkovich, P. (2015) Characterisation of human saliva as a platform for oral dissolution medium development. European Journal of Pharmaceutics and Biopharmaceutics. 91, 16–24. DOI: 10.1016/j.ejpb.2015.01.007 

[6] Yoshihara, A., Hirotomi, T., Takano, N., Kondo, T., Hanada, N. & Miyazaki, H. (2007) Serum markers of chronic dehydration are associated with saliva spinability. Journal of Oral Rehabilitation. 34(10), 733–738. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2842.2007.01732.x 

[7] Ackerman, D., Laszlo, M., Provisor, A. & Yu, A. (2018) Nutrition Management for the Head and Neck Cancer Patient. Multidisciplinary Care of the Head and Neck Cancer Patient. 187–208. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-65421-8_11 

[8] Rowe, M., Lawn, C. & Wilson, B. (2018, November 8) Effects of Papaya Enzymes in Patients with Dry Mouth. Acta Scientific Pharmaceutical Sciences. 2(12), 16­–19. 

[9] Ligtenberg, A., Liem, E., Brand, H. & Veerman, E. (2016) The Effect of Exercise on Salivary Viscosity. Diagnostics. 6(4), 40. DOI: 10.3390/diagnostics6040040 

[10] Logemann, J. A., Pauloski, B. R., Rademaker, A. W., Lazarus, C. L., Mittal, B., Gaziano, J., Stachiowiak, L., MacCracken, E. & Newman, L. A. (2003) Xerostomia: 12-Month changes in saliva production and its relationship to perception and performance of swallow function, oral intake, and diet after chemoradiation. Head & Neck. 25(6), 432–437. DOI: 10.1002/hed.10255 

[11] Hayward, M. C., & Shea, A. M. (2009) Nutritional Needs of Patients with Malignancies of the Head and Neck. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. 25(3), 203–211. DOI: 10.1016/j.soncn.2009.05.003 

[12] Goules, A. V. & Tzioufas, A. G. (2016) Primary Sjӧgren’s syndrome: Clinical phenotypes, outcome and the development of biomarkers. Autoimmunity Reviews. 15(7), 695–703. DOI: 10.1016/j.autrev.2016.03.004 

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