Managing Treatments

When Dry Mouth and Cancer Treatment Meet

Dry mouth caused by cancer treatment is no joke. If you experience this, relay your symptoms and concerns to your treatment team so you can get the help you need.

If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, especially for head, neck or oral cancer, you may notice your mouth has become quite dry. The condition is called xerostomia, and there are many ways dry mouth and cancer go hand-in-hand. Thankfully, this side effect is very manageable and relief is out there.

Dry Mouth From Radiation Treatments

If you’re undergoing radiation therapy for head and neck cancers, you may experience dry mouth and other related oral side effects, according to Oncolink. This is caused by damage to the salivary glands from radiation to both sides of your head and neck and can change the amount, consistency and acidity of your saliva. The severity of your symptoms is directly related to the dose of radiation you received and can cause annoying “cotton” mouth or worse complications including bad breath, taste loss, oral pain, sleep disturbances and burning sensation on the tongue, as well as difficulty talking, chewing and swallowing.

While oral symptoms may be most severe during radiation treatment, salivary glands are able to recover function over time, so your symptoms may begin to subside. But you may experience long-term dry mouth symptoms, especially if radiation was focused directly at the salivary glands, according to the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

Dry Mouth From Other Treatments

In addition to radiation, many chemotherapy drugs and other oral medications such as antidepressants, diuretics and pain medications may cause the same symptoms or aggravate radiation-induced dry mouth. Normal salivary function generally resumes when chemotherapy or other medications causing dry mouth are discontinued. If it becomes too much for you to handle or your oral health starts to deteriorate because of your cancer treatment, talk to your doctor about the solutions that are available to you. Your cancer team can prescribe medications to stimulate the salivary glands or suggest over the counter mouth rinses and saliva substitutes.

What To Do At Home

When dealing with dry mouth and cancer, drink lots of water in small sips to stay hydrated. You’ll want to avoid alcohol and drinks with caffeine, as well as acidic juices such as lemon, grapefruit and tomato that can further dry out and inflame your irritated mouth, according to the American Cancer Society. Stay away from coarse or hard foods such as chips and granola, sticky foods like peanut butter and candy and hot, acidic or spicy foods that burn your tongue and irritate your sensitive mouth.

If liquids bother your tongue, drinking from a straw can be soothing. When eating, take small bites and chew your food adequately to help stimulate saliva. When mouth sores, dryness or oral pain are a problem, sucking on ice chips can reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

Also, brushing your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush can protect delicate oral tissues and help dry mouth symptoms. To further soften the bristles, try dipping the brush in warm water before use. Avoid mouthwashes and other dental products that contain alcohol which may burn sores and cause your mouth to dry out even further.

When you’re finished with your cancer treatment, your doctor or care team can tell you when it’s safe to visit the dentist for a check up and cleaning. Your happy, healthy mouth will return.

Naomi Mannino
Naomi Mannino