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Cancer treatments and oral health

Most people are aware of common side effects of cancer treatment, such as nausea and hair loss. But many don't realize that most   people being treated for cancer have problems in their mouth. These problems can make it difficult to eat, talk, and swallow. This can interfere with cancer treatment and reduce quality of life.


Head and neck radiation and chemotherapy can cause mouth problems ranging from dry mouth to life-threatening infections.

For example, mouth sores can occur because chemotherapy and radiation kill fast-growing cells such as cancer cells. But these treatments also kill healthy cells that are growing quickly, such as the cells in your mouth. In addition, radiation to the head and neck can damage the glands that make saliva, or salivary glands, significantly reducing the amount of saliva produced. Without enough saliva, tooth decay and other infections can develop.


Head and neck radiation can cause:

  • Dry mouth
  • Severe tooth decay
  • Loss of taste or changes in the way food tastes
  • Sore mouth and gums
  • Infections
  • Stiffness of the jaw
  • Jawbone changes

Chemotherapy can cause:

  • Dry mouth
  • Sore mouth and gums
  • Change in taste
  • Burning, flaky, or swollen tongue
  • Infection
  • Mouth ulcers


Treatment depends on the mouth problems you develop. For example, the treatment of jaw stiffness or pain can consist of daily jaw exercises. Treatment for oral mucositis, which results in painful mouth sores, may require a medication to cover the lining of your mouth to protect it when you eat and / or a topical medication to numb the pain.

Make sure to follow all of your doctor's or dentist's instructions for treating your mouth problems.

Helpful Hints

If you are a cancer patient, here are some things you can do to reduce the risk and impact of treatment-related mouth problems:

  • See a dentist about 1 month before starting cancer treatment to make sure your mouth is healthy.
  • Provide your dentist with your cancer doctor's contact information. It is important that they talk to each other about your cancer treatment.
  • Take good care of your mouth during and after the treatment. Follow the dentist's instructions to keep your mouth clean.
  • Keep your mouth moist by drinking plenty of water, sucking ice cubes, and using sugar-free gum or candy. Artificial saliva may also be required.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that can irritate your mouth, such as pungent, crunchy foods or hot, spicy foods.
  • Avoid tobacco products or alcoholic drinks.
  • Call your doctor if your mouth hurts.

If you are receiving radiation in the head and neck area, you should also:

  • Talk to your dentist about using fluoride gel to prevent tooth decay.
  • Train the jaw muscles three times a day: open and close the mouth as far as possible (without causing pain) 20 times. This helps prevent jaw stiffness.

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