Chemotherapy and radiation are often used to treat cancer. These treatments can cause issues with your mouth, altering your ability to eat, talk and swallow. You’ll want to promptly address these problems, so they don’t cause a delay in treatment. That’s why it’s vital to understand the most common side effects of cancer treatments.
Radiation, especially in the head and neck area, can damage salivary glands and cause extreme dry mouth. To help prevent tooth decay and mouth infections, you will need to actively manage dry mouth by:
- Drinking lots of water to keep your mouth moist.
- Avoiding spicy and salty foods.
- Chewing sugar-free gum.
- Sucking on ice chips or sugar-free hard candy (just don’t bite down!).
- Asking your dentist about a saliva substitute or other remedies.
Oral mucositis, a potentially painful side effect of chemotherapy, occurs when cells that line the mouth become swollen, irritated and inflamed. This can happen because chemotherapy breaks down both cancer cells and healthy cells.
The most common symptoms include redness and swelling in the gums, sores in the mouth and throat, burning and aching in the mouth, and abdominal cramps and tenderness.
As with dry mouth, you can manage the pain by drinking plenty of fluids, using lip balms or creams, brushing and flossing regularly and sucking on ice chips. Avoid smoking, alcohol and eating spicy, acidic and rough or hard foods. Look for non-alcoholic mouthwashes and steer clear of toothpastes that contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which can irritate the tissues that line the mouth and worsen mucositis.
Change in ability to taste3
When undergoing cancer treatments, foods can taste different than they previously did or may seem to have no flavor at all. Radiation therapy may cause a change in sweet, sour, bitter and salty flavors. Chemotherapy drugs may cause an unpleasant chemical or metallic taste in your mouth.
If this happens to you:
- Try marinating or adding herbal spices to a bland dish.
- Switch to other high-protein foods such as chicken, eggs, fish, turkey, beans or dairy products when red meat tastes off.
- Use plastic utensils and non-metal cooking dishes if food tastes metallic.
- Try sugar-free hard candies, gum or mints to get a bad taste out of your mouth.
Sometimes patients receiving head and neck cancer treatments cannot tolerate the flavor of their regular toothpaste. Don’t let this interfere with your oral hygiene. Try other flavors to find one that won’t irritate your mouth.
Schedule an appointment with your dentist before you begin chemotherapy or radiation treatments.4 Your dentist can treat any current issues and show you how to take care of your mouth to help prevent or alleviate side effects. It’s likely your dentist will also prescribe a higher strength fluoride toothpaste. Continue to take good care of your mouth during treatment and visit your dentist regularly.