Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Mouth sores / dry mouth

Cancer and its treatment can weaken the immune system and damage the cells lining the mouth. Oral problems are common in people with cancer, particularly head and neck cancers.

Mouth sores and/or dry mouth can be painful and make it difficult to eat, chew, swallow and talk. When oral mucositis becomes severe, it can also cause bleeding or infection. Your doctor or dentist may prescribe medications to help heal and soothe your mouth. Sometimes oral complications can become severe enough that it is necessary to modify or delay your treatment so your mouth can heal. Good oral hygiene can also help decrease the severity of mouth sores and other problems.

Mouth sores (oral mucositis/stomatitus)

Oral mucositis or stomatitus is an inflammation of mucous membranes inside the mouth. Symptoms of mucositis/stomatitus may include: mouth sores, white patches on the tongue, redness or irritation of the mouth and throat, pain when swallowing or the sensation of a lump in the throat, dryness of the mouth, tenderness or burning when eating spicy or acidic foods.
Dry Mouth (Xerostomia)

Dry mouth, or xerostomia, (which can also lead to oral mucositis) occurs when the salivary glands do not produce enough saliva. Saliva also helps to neutralize acid in the mouth and clean the teeth and gums, thereby helping to prevent infection, mouth sores, tooth decay, and gum disease. Symptoms of xerostomia may include thick or stringy saliva, taste changes, cracked lips, sore tongue and/or changes in your ability to speak clearly.

Tips for managing mouth sores / dry mouth

  • Visit your dentist, who can check the health of your mouth and teeth and help lessen the severity of oral complications like infection.
  • Check your mouth each day to look for any changes. Check the inside of your cheeks, the roof of your mouth, your lips, gums and under your tongue. Look for red areas or white patches, which often become sores.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (e.g., 8-10 glasses of water) each day to moisten the mouth and avoid dehydration. A straw may make drinking easier.
  • Try chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless candies to help increase saliva flow.
  • Avoid drinking fluids that are very hot or cold, as well as acidic drinks (e.g., orange juice, grapefruit juice), which can irritate mouth sores.
  • Eat soft, bland and lukewarm/cool foods that are easy to swallow (e.g., puddings, soups, frozen desserts, mashed potatoes, noodles, pasta). Moisten dry foods with gravy, broth or milk, or puree food in a blender to make it softer and easier to eat.
  • Do not eat hot, spicy or fried foods. Avoid acidic or high-sugar fruits and juices, which can make you more susceptible to tooth decay. Avoid alcohol and tobacco.
  • Try milk products (e.g., skim, soy or rice milks), which may help thicken mucus secretions.
  • Ask your doctor if there is a solution you can rinse with to numb your mouth sores, or a pain medication you can take before meals.
  • Gently brush your teeth, gums and tongue with a soft bristled toothbrush in the morning, after meals, and before bedtime. Choose mild-tasting, non-abrasive toothpaste with fluoride.
  • Keep your lips moist with lip moisturizer or mild lip balm.
  • Rinse your mouth with sterile water or a bland, non-irritating solution several times a day, particularly after meals and at bedtime. Avoid mouthwashes and other products that contain alcohol.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier at night to keep your mouth and throat moist while sleeping.
  • Do not wear loose-fitting dentures that may irritate the mouth and gums. If mouth sores are severe, or if dentures fit poorly, do not wear them.

NOTE: This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to making decisions about your treatment.