Chemotherapy, Radiation and Surgery – Oral Affects and Tips to Manage Oral Side-Effects

Author: Dr Aushi Patel

Unfortunately, many people experience unpleasant side effects in the mouth when they are undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery (or a combination of these) for the treatment of cancer. Cancer treatments work to destroy or remove rapidly dividing cancer cells. They can, however, affect other healthy cells in the body that happen to naturally have a high turnover rate. Such cells are present in the lining of the mouth and gut – known as the epithelium. In the mouth these cells regenerate the epithelium every five to seven days in order to allow it’s lining to withstand the constant wear and tear it endures while chewing, swallowing and even speaking. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy affect these regenerating cells which can disrupt the normal process of repair and renewal of mouth tissue. Unfortunately, this can result in some pretty unpleasant and uncomfortable side effects in the mouth.

Portrait of a woman with cancer embracing adult daughter

Oral Side-Effects

Bleeding gums – Your gums may bleed and look red and swollen.

Mucositis – This can present as painful ulcers and sores in the mouth.

Dry Mouth – This may present as:

·      a feeling of stickiness and less saliva in the mouth.

·      thick and /or stringy saliva.

·      difficulty in tasting, chewing and swallowing food.

·      difficulty speaking- cracks or ridges on the tongue.

·      bad breath (halitosis).

·      more build-up of plaque and tartar around the teeth than usual.

Tooth decay – If you have a dry mouth your teeth may be at increased risk of decay. This is because saliva acts to wash harmful bacteria off the teeth whilst bathing them in reparative minerals and antibacterial enzymes.

Mouth infections – The most common is thrush, which can appear as white or yellow patches on the tongue and other parts of the mouth. This may also cause bad breath (halitosis).

Taste changes – foods may taste different which may lead to a loss of appetite and challenges maintaining nutrition.

Gum and Teeth Sensitivity – To hot, cold, salty, spicy or acidic foods and drinks.

Having problems in the mouth may make life even more challenging at this difficult time. These unpleasant side effects can make chewing painful and may impact on the type of food you can eat, your nutrition and general health.

Here are some simple oral care tips which may help make your mouth more comfortable:

Use a soft bristle toothbrush with gentle pressure and a mild toothpaste. Replace your brush regularly to prevent infection – remember toothbrushes are breeding grounds for bacteria! Use coconut oil or a mild toothpaste recommended by your dentist. If your mouth is very sore or bleeds when you clean your teeth, try rinsing and then gently wiping the teeth with a piece of gauze. Make sure to avoid whitening toothpastes as these may irritate the mouth and gums.

Avoid flossing and tongue scraping (particularly when going through chemotherapy when your immunity is low) as these practices may push bacteria and toxins into the blood stream.

Rinse your mouth every time you eat or drink something, and at either end of the day. To rinse, it is best to use a good quality alcohol free herbal mouth wash, or you could add some bicarbonate of soda, sea salt or tea tree oil in 1 cup of warm water for a simple home remedy. Swish it around your mouth and spit it out.

If you wear dentures wear them only during meals, and clean well after use. This will reduce the risk of fungal infection.

Stay hydrated by drinking 6-8 glasses of filtered water daily. It is best to avoid caffeine and sugary drinks. If your mouth is dry a mist humidifier at night may help by increasing the moisture around you.

Place a clove under the tongue. This is an ancient Ayurvedic remedy to help with nausea and stimulate saliva. This involves placing a clove under the tongue, as needed, for 15-20 minutes.

Suck on ice chips. If your mouth feels inflamed sucking on ice chips can have a cooling and soothing effect.

Apply a papaya lip balm or extra virgin organic coconut oil on your lips if they are dry and cracking.

Attend regular dental check-ups so that the health of your mouth can be monitored by your dentist and any issues can be picked up early.

The good news is that most of these unpleasant symptoms gradually go away after your treatment is over.

Our team at Anokhi Dental are here to answer any questions you may have about your dental care.  You can call us on (02) 9264 5195 email or ask us any questions at your next appointment.

Anokhi Dental is a holistic dental practice located in the heart of Sydney CBD.

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