Good oral health is important for everyone, but especially for people with cancer. More than one-third of people treated for cancer develop complications affecting the mouth, such as mouth sores (mucositis), dry mouth (xerostomia), and pain or difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).
These complications can lead to poor nutrition, weight loss, dehydration and reduced quality of life. For some, oral health complications can delay or discontinue treatment entirely, or cause serious infections.
What can people with cancer do to maintain good oral health and prevent complications?
Visit a dentist before beginning cancer treatment – If you are in good oral health prior to starting cancer treatment, you may avoid painful mouth problems or other complications later. Many patients need to have teeth extracted, cavities filled, and their gums checked before treatment can begin, particularly those who will receive head and neck radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
Check your mouth daily – Look for red areas or white patches, which often become sores. Let your doctor know if your mouth looks or feels different or if you notice changes in your taste.
Maintain routine oral hygiene – Proper cleaning of the mouth and teeth can help reduce complications like mouth sores, infections and cavities.
- Gently brush your teeth, gums and tongue with a soft bristled toothbrush.
- Floss gently once a day. If you do not usually floss, talk with your doctor before you start.
- Keep your lips moist with lip moisturizer or mild lip balm to prevent dry or cracked lips.
- Rinse your mouth with sterile water or a bland, non-irritating solution to help remove bacteria, prevent infections and provide moisture for the membranes.
Stay hydrated – A dry mouth is very susceptible to cavities, so it is important to stay hydrated. Drink 8 - 10 glasses of water each day. Chew sugarless gum or suck on sugarless candies to help increase saliva flow. Avoid fluids that are very hot or cold, or acidic drinks which can irritate mouth sores.
Eat right – An acidic environment in the mouth can be more susceptible to cavities. Eat a healthy diet low in sugar and carbohydrates. Choose soft, easy-to-chew foods and lukewarm food and drinks. Avoid spicy, sour or crunchy foods, and alcohol.
Dental health is a critical component of the cancer treatment process. While some oral complications are inevitable during treatment, a little preparation goes a long way toward minimizing their effects. A good way to prepare is to get a dentist involved from the start.
Learn more about dental health and cancer treatment.