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Dry mouth when public speaking

Dear Alice,

I was reading your section on fear of public speaking. Every time I speak, my mouth dries up to the point that I can hardly talk, which makes me even more nervous. Is there any secret to overcome this?

Thanks,

Cottonmouth

Dear Cottonmouth, 

It seems like your nerves are leaving you out to dry! Cotton mouth — also known as dry mouth or xerostomia to be scientific — is a condition that occurs when the salivary glands in your mouth don’t produce enough saliva to keep your mouth and throat wet. Some symptoms of dry mouth include a dry or itchy throat, pasty tongue, and trouble swallowing. Although experiencing dry mouth in the moment can be a nerve-wracking experience, it may be helpful to recognize that you’re not alone — temporary dry mouth is a common occurrence for people who are nervous about public speaking. One tip to help tackle your dry mouth is to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of room temperature, flat (non-sparkling) water before and during your public speaking appointment. However, if you notice that the drought in your mouth stays long after you’re through your speech, you may want to consider speaking with a health care provider about longer-term solutions. 

There may be a biological explanation for your parched predicament. When you’re nervous or anxious, your body releases hormones called corticotropin-releasing hormones (CRH) that produce cortisol. Higher cortisol levels may be associated with higher levels of stress. These increased levels of cortisol may be associated with lower levels of saliva production. In fact, some scientists have found that people with dry mouth have higher levels of cortisol in their saliva than their peers. Dry mouth is especially common for people who have anxiety disorders or depression, both of which are associated with high cortisol levels and dry mouth. In a stressful situation such as public speaking, it’s possible that the increase in cortisol levels is associated with your experience of dry mouth. 

So, what’s a person to do to manage dry mouth in the moment? It appears that the best way to quench your dry mouth is by staying hydrated. You might consider drinking plenty of water the night before you’re due to give a presentation and stay hydrated the hour before you speak by sipping on water continuously. Drinking room-temp still water (hold the carbonation!) will help you prep for public speaking; cold water can constrict your vocal cords and the gas from bubbly water may come back to haunt you during your presentation. If you’re worried about your liquid intake, there are some other tricks you may want to try as well: 

  • Chew sugar-free gum or suck on a sugar-free candy to stimulate saliva production before going up to speak (don’t forget to spit it out before speaking!). 
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine before speaking, as these substances can be dehydrating. 
  • If you use mouthwash, try switching to an alcohol-free variety
  • Consider using a humidifier at night if you’re prone to dry mouth. 

These tips may be useful in the short-term, but if you’re experiencing dry mouth on the regular, there may be another factor to consider. Dry mouth can be a side effect of many prescription drugs — including antidepressants and antihistamines — or it may be an indication of hormone changes or underlying health concerns. Long-term effects of consistent dry mouth may include difficulty swallowing and digesting food, mouth infections, and tooth decay. There are many treatments for dry mouth, such as oral rinses or artificial saliva and other saliva substitutes, which can be prescribed or purchased over the counter. No matter the root cause for the desert-like conditions in your mouth when you're up at the podium, you don't have to figure out how to address it on your own. For instance, if you notice your mouth feeling dry outside of public speaking engagements, it may be useful to speak with your health care provider about your experiences and to discuss potential treatments that work best for you. It may also be helpful to discuss your experience with a mental health professional if you have anxiety or depression. They may be able to help you learn ways to manage your stress or other situations in order to mitigate your dry mouth symptoms.

Good luck with your future public speaking endeavors! 

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Last updated Jul 12, 2022
Originally published Mar 23, 2001

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