Were you diagnosed with cancer? This scary disease, if not at a too advanced stage, can be treated or slowed down with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Those methods of treatment can be very effective, but often have very uncomfortable or even painful side effects that can occur all over your body, including your mouthTeeth, gums, oral tissues and salivary glands can all be affected.

Some of the oral problems caused by cancer therapy can be so agonizing that a patient might need to delay or stop the treatment. But knowing about these side effects can help you reduce and manage them, with the help of your physician and your dentist.

How can your mouth be affected?

cancer side effectsChemotherapy and radiation therapy can have oral side effects that vary depending of the type of cancer and the intensity of the treatment. Those side effects can display themselves in different manners:

  • Xerostomia or dry mouth follows a reduced production of saliva because salivary glands are affected during treatments.
  • Cavities can appear quickly because of the low amount of saliva.
  • There might be a painful or burning feeling in the mouth, tongue and gums which also follow a low amount of saliva in the mouth.
  • Jaws might experience stiffness.
  • Problems with eating, speaking, and swallowing.
  • The ability to taste foods decreases.
  • Periodontal disease might emerge.
  • The immune system weakens in general.

In order to manage all those side effects, your dentist can make you recommendations to keep your mouth comfortable and healthy.

What should be done before treatments?

Dental examBefore starting chemotherapy or radiation therapy, it is good to have your mouth and teeth examined to see if you are pre-disposed for some problems. Dentists recommend having a thorough dental exam at least two weeks before cancer treatment begins in order to reduce and manage the undesirable side effects. If you already have cavities, or if you already suffer from gum disease, treating and managing those disorders should also ideally be done previously.

Before the exam, your dentist should be notified about your health state with cancer and your medical history should be updated. Your dentist must know who your physician is, what your cancer treatment will be, and other aspects of your cancer diagnosis. All this information will help your dentist understand and plan how to treat you, make the right recommendations and support your physician’s treatment plan.

How to care for your mouth

Brushing and flossingIf you have cancer it’s important for you to continue regular and thorough oral hygiene, which includes brushing two to three times a day and flossing at least once a day. When you go through chemotherapy or radiation therapy your mouth becomes drier from low saliva flow. You have more chances of developing tooth decay and gum disease. That is why you should floss preferably after each meal.

Also, when you brush your teeth, use mild-tasting toothpaste because too much flavour can irritate your mouth. If a toothpaste irritates your mouth, rinse with salt and water after brushing your teeth. To avoid gum disease, rinse your mouth with an antibacterial mouthwash, but it’s important to avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol.

What to do about dry mouth

Tooth brushingChemotherapy and radiation therapy can affect salivary glands in your mouth. Xerostomia, or dry mouth, is an unpleasant sensation caused by a reduced production of saliva. This condition can increase the risk of developing cavities and can also initiate a burning or painful feeling in your mouth.

If you have cancer and are suffering from dry mouth, you should brush your teeth and clean your mouth at least four times a day, and floss at least once a day. If there are areas in your gums that are bleeding or that are sore, floss gently around them.

You also need to use a fluoride containing toothpaste in order to protect even more your teeth against tooth decay. You can rinse your mouth with a solution of salt and baking soda in warm water several times a day, and this followed by rinsing with water alone. Other mouthwashes may also be used to rinse your mouth, but as long as they don’t contain alcohol.

If you have cancer and you are undergoing treatments, whether it’s chemotherapy or radiation therapy, your ability to taste changes, and you might find it more difficult to eat the foods that you are used to eating. But despite these uncomfortable difficulties, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet as it is recommended by your physician.

What should you eat

Nutrition fruitsWhen undergoing a cancer treatment, you might experience nausea and a loss of appetite. But it’s important to get the right amount of nutrients and calories. Protein intake is something important to consider as well. You must also make sure you get enough vitamins by eating fruits and vegetables. If needed, you may use vitamin supplements that also provide essential minerals.

The bones of your jaws support your teeth. Therefore when your bones are strong and healthy, you teeth have a stronger foundation to hold them when you eat and chew foods. Many doctors recommend taking vitamin D and calcium to keep your bones healthy. If you have bone diseases such as osteoporosis you may need additional supplements.

Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol during cancer treatment. Tobacco is a strong carcinogen and should never be consumed in the first place, even less if you are diagnosed with cancer.

Acidic foods can irritate your mouth. You should avoid acidic, high-sugar beverages like soft drinks and energy drinks. Consumption of grapefruit, orange juice, and tomato juice should also be reduced because they are natural acidic foods.


Cancer Information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (www.cancer.net).
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (www.cancercenter.com).

The information above should be used as a reference only. Any medical decision should not be taken before consulting a health care professional.

The masculine gender may have been more used in the article, but without prejudice, to make reading easier.

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