An oft-overlooked symptom of menopause


Say "menopause," and most people think of symptoms like hot flashes, mood swings, and vaginal dryness. But as many as 90 percent of women may also experience mouth discomfort, which can have a major impact on how well they eat. According to a recent report by the American Dental Association, the most common mouth problems that occur after menopause are pain and burning, altered taste sensations, dry mouth, and sensitive gums that bleed easily.

Scientists aren't sure why menopause causes oral discomfort. One theory is that like the lining of the vagina, the gums contain specific estrogen receptors that appear to play a role in the structure and function of the oral cavity. When a woman's estrogen levels fall during menopause, the estrogen receptors may "register" the decline, and the tissues of the mouth become altered.

Lending weight to this theory is the observation that hormone replacement therapy seems to reduce oral discomfort. In cases where the tissues of the mouth dearly look abnormal, hormone therapy may help restore a normal appearance.

Nonhormonal aids
Women who suffer oral pain during menopause can try a number of strategies to alleviate symptoms and to keep the discomfort from interfering with the ability to eat a healthful diet. One is to avoid alcohol and smoking, both of which can irritate the tender membranes of the mouth. By the same token, menopausal women may want to be cautious about eating highly spiced foods, which can exacerbate mouth pain and burning.

Women suffering from dry mouth or taste alterations resulting from dry mouth might try sucking on sugar-free candies or swishing the mouth with a few drops of lemon juice mixed with water, which will help stimulate the flow of saliva. Using a room humidifier to keep moisture levels high and breathing through the nose can also help relieve dry mouth. For severe cases, some physicians recommend artificial saliva products such as Xero-Lube and Salivart, which provide temporary relief. Drinking plenty of water and eating soft foods moistened with sauces and gravies can also help relieve dry mouth and other oral discomfort.

Mouth discomfort so severe that it interferes with day-to-day activities or leads to weight loss should be brought to a physician's attention. While it may be related to the hormonal changes of menopause, it may also be a red flag for a serious problem such as cancer.

Many drugs, including antidepressants like Prozac, blood pressure medications such as Dyazide, and pain killers like ibuprofen, also cause dry mouth, which in turn may add to oral pain. Menopausal women who take such medications should discuss the possible side effects with their doctors.

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