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Dry mouth

What is dry mouth?

Dry mouth is marked by an exceptionally parched mouth, often caused when salivary glands become irritated or damaged, leading them to make less saliva or saliva that is thick or sticky. A cancer patient may experience this side effect, also known as xerostomia, when taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications, when undergoing chemotherapy, or after radiation treatments that target the head or neck area. Because saliva serves so many important functions, dry mouth may lead to a range of other symptoms, including increased thirst and hoarseness and an increased risk of oral infection and tooth decay. Other potential complications include altered speech, changes to taste or smell, difficulty swallowing and indigestion. Any of these side effects can impact patients’ overall eating and drinking habits and nourishment.

How likely are cancer patients to experience dry mouth?

Dry mouth is a common side effect of cancer treatment, especially among patients undergoing targeted radiotherapy to the head and neck. This condition can last for several months, or it may become permanent if the salivary glands are damaged during radiotherapy. Dry mouth is also typical among patients taking certain chemotherapy drugs that are known to thicken saliva and cause dry mouth.

How can integrative care help?

A variety of techniques are available to promote the healing of salivary glands, reduce pain and discomfort, and help patients stay hydrated. 

Acupuncture

A traditional Chinese medicine technique, acupuncture involves the gentle, often-painless application of thin needles to strategic pressure points. Acupuncturists may help patients who have not found relief from dry mouth with toothpastes and mouthwashes or a prescription medication that may cause additional side effects. A 2011 study published in the journal Cancer found that acupuncture “significantly reduced” dry mouth in the head and neck cancer patients studied and improved their quality of life.  These providers may also work with other clinicians who approach dry mouth from a dietary, medicinal and oncology rehabilitation standpoint to enhance patients’ overall symptom management.

Nutrition Therapy

Dry mouth can cause chewing and swallowing difficulties. Dietitians can educate patients on how to modify food textures to make the foods easier to eat. Recommendations may include eating soft, moist foods, incorporating liquids, and avoiding dry, coarse foods. Dietitians may also offer recipes for homemade shakes, smoothies or other forms of liquid nutrition that are tailored to the patients’ specific nutrient needs to ease dry mouth symptoms and complications.

Oncology Rehabilitation

Speech therapists who work on the oncology rehabilitation team can help patients with an oral hygiene regimen to address dry mouth. Specially trained in working with the mouth and throat muscles, speech pathologists may also be instrumental in teaching patients techniques on how to swallow, to increase salivary secretions, and to eat and drink without gagging or choking. They often work with other cancer care clinicians on the patient’s diet and pain management routine to craft a personalized plan designed to yield an appropriate outcome.