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I Need Help for Dry Mouth Caused by Radiation Therapy

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Updated March 26, 2012

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Question: I Need Help for Dry Mouth Caused by Radiation Therapy
My husband has severe dry mouth from dozens of radiation treatments for his cancer. The doctor prescribed him a gel to help moisten the inside of his mouth, but it hasn't helped at all. He is miserable! He can't eat most foods, and water doesn't help either. What else can my husband do to help his dry mouth?
Answer:

Dry mouth, or xerostomia, is a common side effect of radiation therapy to the head and neck region. When someone receives radiation there, the salivary glands are often damaged, leaving patients with mild to severe dry mouth. The good news is that for most people, salivary gland function is eventually restored after treatment, but dry mouth may last for weeks and even months.

Dry mouth can lead to serious oral health complications if not effectively addressed. Many people don't realize just how much saliva influences our oral health. It regulates acids from food particles in the mouth, keeps mucosa (soft lining of the mouth and cheeks) moist, helps break down sugars and aids in digestion. When salivary gland production decreases, several complications can occur, such as:

  • Dental caries and decay

  • Dry, cracked and/or ulcerated mucosa

  • Difficulty swallowing food

  • Dry, chapped lips

  • Mouth infections

  • Halitosis (bad breath)

Treating Dry Mouth

There are several different ways to combat dry mouth, including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments. Often, people with dry mouth try a few different therapies before finding one that works for them. You mentioned that your husband tried moisturizing gel with little success. While the gel is a popular remedy, it doesn't work for everyone. What may work for one person, may not be effective for another. The important thing is not to give up if something doesn't work.

Here are some recommendations to help your husband cope with dry mouth:

  • Sugarless gum/hard candy: Chewing gum can help keep the mouth moist and help increase saliva production. Some people find that gum containing xylitol works well. Hard candy can be effective, too, but make sure it's sugarless. Candy and gum containing sugar increase the risk of developing cavities and other dental problems because of the lack of the saliva necessary to break down the sugars.

  • Partially frozen fruit juices and water: Dry mouth sufferers may find relief with partially frozen fruit juices and water. The texture of frozen drinks can make liquids more tolerable. You can blend fruit juices with ice in a blender or pop a few bottles in the freezer and remove before frozen. Remember to choose sugar-free fruit juice.

  • Stay hydrated: It's important to maintain hydration, especially if you have dry mouth. Carry a water bottle with you at all times and take frequent sips. Water may not provide the most relief for dry mouth, but drinking adequate amounts will prevent it from worsening.

  • Use a cool-mist humidifier in the bedroom: Morning can be especially rough for people with dry mouth. Breathing through your mouth while sleeping can dry the inside of the mouth and lips. Placing a cool-mist humidifier in the bedroom may help.

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages: Caffeine can also dry the mouth. So, avoid coffee, tea and many sodas.

  • Avoid tobacco products and alcohol: Like caffeine, tobacco products and alcohol can cause dry mouth.

Your husband's doctor may also recommend products made by Biotene or Thayer's, two companies that make several products for dry-mouth sufferers. Gum, mouthwashes, toothpaste and sprays are available over-the-counter at your local retailer. They help with saliva production and add moisture to the mouth. Even better, they are sugar free.

Finally, if OTC treatments don't work, your doctor may prescribe medications that can help increase saliva production and reduce dry mouth sensation, such as Salagen.

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