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Coping with Dry Mouth During Cancer Therapy

Dry mouth is a common complaint during some types of cancer treatments. The medical term for dry mouth is xerostomia. Xerostomia is not a disease; it’s a symptom. Some types of cancer medications can cause dry mouth symptoms, but the most common cause is radiation treatment for cancer of the head and neck area.

Radiation treatment is the use of X-ray beams to destroy cancer cells. Unfortunately, these beams can also damage some normal tissue. If some of your saliva glands are close to cancer cells, they may be affected by radiation cancer treatments.

Smaller amounts of radiation cause swelling of your salivary glands that temporarily reduces the flow of saliva. Larger doses over a longer period can cause scar tissue that may result in some permanent loss of salivary gland function.

When your mouth doesn’t get enough saliva

The saliva that moistens your mouth is important in many ways. It helps you swallow, taste, and speak. It also helps prevent mouth infections, gum disease, and tooth decay.

If you need to have radiation cancer treatment to your head or neck, you may start to notice symptoms of dry mouth after about one week. Common symptoms include:

  • Thick and sticky saliva

  • Dry mouth and feeling thirsty

  • Sore or burning pain in the mouth

  • Trouble swallowing or speaking

  • Sore throat

  • Cuts or cracks around your mouth and lips

Coping with dry mouth during cancer treatment

To keep up your nutrition needs during cancer treatment and prevent complications from cavities and infections in your mouth, it’s important to keep your mouth as healthy and moist as possible. Here are tips you can use:

  • Drink plenty of healthy liquids. Aim for at least eight cups every day. Besides water, try diluted juices and even milkshakes, but avoid coffee, tea, and sodas with caffeine because they are dehydrating. Using a straw may make drinking easier.

  • Eat foods that are moist, soft, and not too hot or spicy. Add broth or gravy to moisten your foods and take small bites. You might try processing some foods in a blender to make eating easier. Since dry mouth makes you more susceptible to cavities, you should avoid sugary and acidic foods. 

  • Increase your saliva. Stimulate the flow of saliva by chewing sugarless gum and sucking on hard, sugarless candy.

  • Keep your mouth clean by brushing your teeth at least four times every day. Use a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Make sure to floss every day, too.

  • Use a rinse often. Rinse your mouth with a solution of one-half teaspoon of salt and one-half teaspoon of baking soda added to one cup of warm water four to six times per day.

  • Eliminate alcohol and all tobacco products. Stay away from alcohol—even mouthwashes that contain alcohol. Quit smoking and using tobacco of any kind.

  • If you wear dentures, remove them at night and soak them. Using lubricants, such as glycerin, under dentures may increase comfort and decrease soreness. 

Get help from your cancer treatment team

Doctors and therapists who treat head and neck cancer are aware of how uncomfortable dry mouth can be. They may be able to help you cope with dry mouth during your cancer treatment. In cases of severe dry mouth, you may need special feedings for a while to get necessary nutrition.

You may also need to see your dentist more frequently for help with your oral hygiene. Your dentist may suggest over-the-counter lubricants, saliva substitutes, saliva stimulants, or special dry mouth toothpastes, gums, gels, or rinses. Your doctor or dentist may also prescribe medication to stimulate saliva flow.

Keeping your mouth moist and healthy is important during cancer treatment. If you are struggling with dry mouth, ask your doctor or other members of your treatment team for help.