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Chemotherapy and Your Mouth

Oral Care Tips to Use Before, During and After Chemotherapy

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Updated June 30, 2008

When most people think of the side effects of chemotherapy, hair loss and nausea are usually the first things that come to mind, not dental and oral complications.

But chemotherapy can cause problems in the mouth, such as:

  • mouth sores
  • infections
  • dry mouth
  • bleeding of the gums and lining of the mouth
  • general soreness and pain of the mouth

Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly growing cells. In someone with cancer, the cancer cells are typically the fastest growing cells in his or her body. Unfortunately, chemotherapy also may attack certain healthy cells which normally also grow quickly. For instance, the cells lining the oral cavity are fast growing and can be damaged by chemotherapy.

Oral Side Effects of Chemotherapy Can Be Serious

Infection is one of the greatest concerns when being treated with chemotherapy. It is much harder to fight an infection during chemotherapy because the immune system is not as strong. Serious infections can cause treatment delays and the lowering of drug dosages.

Eating and swallowing also may become difficult, possibly causing nutritional deficiencies. Foods may taste different because of effects on the tongue and taste buds by chemotherapy.

Preventing Oral Problems During Chemotherapy

Prevention of oral problems during chemotherapy begins before treatment even starts. Your doctor may suggest you see a dentist and dental hygienist a few weeks before chemotherapy begins. He or she may refer you to a dentist that specializes in caring for patients undergoing chemotherapy.

At the dental visit, you can expect:

  • a thorough exam of mouth and gums
  • dental x-rays
  • cleaning by dental hygienist
  • instructions on how to care for your mouth and teeth
  • dental work to fix any cavities or other dental problems
During Chemotherapy

During chemotherapy, follow your dentist's instructions for caring for your mouth. Your oncologist may prescribe a special mouthwash that will help prevent mouth sores that could lead to infection.

Avoid food with sharp edges like chips that could possibly scratch or cut the gums or inner lining of the mouth. You may also want to cut out spicy or acidic foods and drinks because they can cause mouth irritation. Alcoholic beverages and tobacco products should be avoided as well.

Maintaining normal oral hygiene like brushing at least twice a day and flossing is important. Brushing with a soft head toothbrush may prevent unnecessary irritation and bleeding by the gums. Mouthwashes can be used, but do not use a type that contains alcohol.

Experts recommend sipping water, eating ice chips, and keeping mouth moist by chewing sugarless gum and candies to help prevent dryness and irritation.

If you experience any oral problems during treatment, let your doctor know. Medication can be prescribed to reduce pain, plus your doctor will want to monitor any side effects closely.

After Chemotherapy

Oral problems usually go away after treatment ends. However, some people continue to experience oral problems following chemotherapy. Make sure your doctor and dentist are aware of any persistent side effects.

Sources:

  1. Chemotherapy and You." 01 June 1999. National Cancer Institute. 28 Feb 2007 <http://www.cancer.gov/cancerinfo/chemotherapy-and-you/page4#C13>.
  2. Chemotherapy and Your Mouth." May 2005. National Insitute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. 28 Feb 2007 <http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DiseasesAndConditions/CancerTreatmentAndOralHealth/ChemotherapyandYourMouth.htm>.
  3. "Oral Health Resources." 21 DEC 2006. CDC. 28 Feb 2007 <http://www.cdc.gov/OralHealth/factsheets/adult.htm>.
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  7. Chemotherapy Side Effects - Oral Side Effects - Caring for Your Mouth During Chemotherapy

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