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Mucositis

How does mucositis affect cancer patients?

Mucositis is defined as an inflammation or ulceration of mucous membranes along the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus. A frequent adverse effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that target the head and neck, stomatitis, or oral mucositis, is characterized by inflammation of the mouth that can develop into painful ulcers and mouth sores. Basic tasks such as eating and swallowing can become a challenge, leading to nutritional consequences, an increased risk of oral infections and difficulty speaking.

Gastrointestinal mucositis impacts the digestive system, and is more likely to affect cancer patients who take chemotherapy drugs. It may also be caused by radiation treatments to the abdominal or pelvic region. Telltale signs typically appear two weeks after the start of treatment and can include diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, rectal bleeding and anal or rectal ulcers.

How likely are cancer patients to experience mucositis?

Mucositis is a common side effect for patients treated with chemotherapy or radiation for head and neck cancer, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. Roughly 40 percent of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments experience oral mucositis, the Oral Cancer Foundation estimates.

How may integrative care help?

Integrative cancer care offers several remedies to reduce the pain, discomfort and progression of mucositis and its impact on nutrition. The supportive care services that may be recommended include:

Nutrition therapy

Dietitians help patients meet their nutrition needs to achieve or maintain a well-nourished state with the goal of preventing delays in their cancer treatment regimen. Their advice may be essential in helping patients navigate painful mucositis, which affects patients’ ability to eat. Dietitians may recommend, for example, that patients suck on ice cubes to prevent mouth sores and numb the pain; increase fluid intake to prevent dehydration; eat soft, plain foods; or use supplements to maintain nutritional health. Since many nutrient deficiencies may be tied to mucositis, dietitians may assess which vitamins and minerals are lacking in the patient’s diet. In more extreme cases, patients may need feeding tubes if the pain and discomfort from oral food intake is too difficult.

Learn more about nutrition therapy

Oncology rehabilitation

Speech therapists who work on the oncology rehabilitation team may recommend an oral hygiene regimen to address mucositis. They may recommend oral rinses to reduce pain and improve oral care, reducing risk of infection and the severity of the mucositis. Additionally, speech pathologists may be instrumental in teaching patients techniques on how to swallow and speak, improve 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.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation

Pain management

The pain management team at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) is trained to manage cancer-related side effects such as mucositis. Mucositis symptoms may be alleviated with over-the-counter and prescription pain medications, prescribed by the licensed physicians on the pain management team.

Learn more about pain management