A healthy mouth is vital to achieving overall health. It can be of particular importance during cancer treatments. It is not only a concern for comfort but can also prevent delays in treatments and risks of infection that could potentially spread to other areas of your body.

Many types of chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the head & neck region, as well as some targeted therapies can cause significant changes in the mouth, the two most common being Dry Mouth and mouth sores called Oral Mucositis.

A dry mouth is far more than an annoyance. Saliva is needed for proper digestion, swallowing and speaking. It helps to reduce taste changes often associated with cancer treatments. Saliva acts as a lubricant to prevent injury to the oral tissues and protects the teeth from cavities and enamel erosion. Saliva’s protective agents can also defend against infections like Thrush, which is very important when the immune system is compromised from low blood counts.

For those receiving chemotherapy, issues with Dry Mouth will typically return to normal when treatments are complete. Radiation to the head and neck can result in permanent damage to salivary glands causing lifelong oral complications associated with lack of saliva. The extent of the damage to salivary glands or other oral structures depends greatly on the dosage and direction of the beam of radiation.

Oral Mucositis affects, to some degree, approximately 40% of those receiving standard dose chemotherapy and nearly all who receive radiation to the head and neck. Mucositis can range from mild soreness of the oral tissues to severe, painful ulcerations that result in complications with eating, delays in treatments and risks of infection. Oral Mucositis may be accentuated by using oral care products with harsh, irritating ingredients and by trauma from improper oral hygiene techniques, existing dental issues and food choices.

Dry Mouth, Oral Mucositis, and other oral complications associated with cancer treatments can be minimized, and in some cases prevented, by being proactive with your dental care, product selection and modified oral hygiene techniques.

Simple ways to protect your mouth include:

  • Good oral hygiene and plaque removal are essential.
  • Use an extra soft toothbrush with a small, compact head to avoid tissue trauma.
  • Use toothpaste free of irritating ingredients including detergents, peroxide, tartar control and whitening agents.
  • Choose a mouth rinse that does not contain alcohol, phenol or peroxide.
  • Stimulate saliva with sugarless gum and mints sweetened 100% with xylitol.
  • Use over-the-counter oral moisturizers
  • Avoid dry, salty, sharp and sticky foods. Choose foods moistened with sauces and gravies.
  • Avoid beverages that contain alcohol, caffeine and high acid levels like soft drinks. Stay well hydrated by drinking lots of water.
  • Talk with your Physician or Dentist for prescription products to relieve Dry Mouth and protect oral tissues.

Find more information on oral health and cancer treatments.

Jill Meyer Lippert, Registered Dental Hygienist
Founder of Side Effect Support LLC