June 25, 2008 at 9:33 PM ET
By Dr. Billy Goldberg and Mark Leyner
We hope that those of you who share our insatiable appetite for pungent biomedical fodder heard about a health clinic in Arkansas that was evacuated recently after more than 30 people were sickened. The staffers and some patients were hit with symptoms that included nausea, dizziness and uncontrollable drooling. A hazmat unit from the National Guard ran precautionary tests, and health officials are looking into whether the outbreak might be connected to an exterminator’s visit.
Uncontrollable drooling?! Surely there’s a disaster film in the making here. Imagine scores of hapless villagers borne away on a tsunami of drool!!
It makes good sense that a hazmat unit was called in because the toxic effects of pesticides – and nerve gasses, for that matter – may include excess salivation with drooling.
But before we tackle the fascinating subject of excessive drooling, which in polite society is more properly known as sialorrhea, how about a quick tutorial about saliva? Drool School.
Spit is one of those disreputable, often reviled bodily fluids that doctors – like chivalrous knights on charging steeds – feel an obligation to rescue from misperception.
Saliva is a clear, viscous fluid secreted from the mucous glands of the mouth. What a magical fluid! The WD-40 of our squeaking bodies.
It contains two major types of protein secretions aiding in digestion and lubrication, as well as several antimicrobial components. Our salivary glands produce about 2 to 4 pints of drool a day.
All babies drool, especially when teething. But as children get older they usually learn to control their saliva and most kids beyond 4 years of age stop their drooling. Children who suffer from disabilities that impair the nerves or muscles in their throats and mouths may continue to drool past this age and may require treatment which can include speech therapy, biofeedback, medication and even surgery.
Pregnant women can also become big-time droolers. Their salivary glands may become swollen, their cheeks puff up and they can have difficulty swallowing and speaking. Sometimes they even have to constantly wipe their mouths to prevent saliva from dribbling down their chins. Ah, the blissful indignities of impending motherhood!
Breathing through the mouth while sleeping also can result in drooling, especially after a few alcoholic drinks.
Not having enough spit can be equally uncomfortable. There are over 1,800 drugs that can make your mouth feel dry. Eighty percent of the top 10 drugs may cause oral dryness, including drugs prescribed for high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, allergies, weight loss or pain.
If a patient complains of sialorrhea – excessive drooling – various associated signs and symptoms need to be explored. Is there also a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, chewing, and speaking? Does the patient have pain or stiffness in the neck or muscle weakness in the face? Has there been any exposure to pesticides? Are there bite marks? (Excessive drooling can result from rabies.)
Why so many questions about too much drool?
In the presence of other symptoms, it can be a sign of trouble. Drooling with fever may indicate abscesses in the head and neck area, tonsillitis, mononucleosis, strep throat or epiglottitis. If accompanied by dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), weight loss or facial weakness, persistent drooling can point to an esophageal tumor, Ludwig’s angina or myotonic dystrophy. With Bell’s Palsy, for instance, drooling often accompanies the gradual onset of facial hemiplegia (partial paralysis). And drooling is a common complication of Parkinson’s disease.
Now that you’re slobber-savvy, you can meditate upon several saliva conundrums. Did you ever wonder where all that excess saliva that’s sucked out of people’s mouths at dentists’ offices around the country ends up? If your suspicion is that tens of billions of barrels of frozen saliva is being stored in top-secret tanks under the Antarctic Ocean, awaiting the development of cars that can run on saliva — thus freeing us from the yoke of foreign oil dependence— you might be on to something.
What about kissing? Isn’t it strange that for all the derisive things people say about spit, sharing it with other people is considered one of the sublime pleasures in life?
A study recently conducted at the State University of New York at Albany found that men prefer wetter kisses. The authors of the study hypothesize that “kissing styles that maximize salivary exchange provide subtle information about a female’s reproductive status since saliva and breath odor changes across the menstrual cycles.” The scientists speculate that “male preference for salivary exchange could function to introduce substances such as hormones or proteins into women’s mouths that may influence their mating psychology, and even make them more sexually receptive.”
So, in the end – as ruthless as it may sound – romance may all boil down to the Saliva of the Fittest.