Dentist explains how to prevent dry mouth after radiation for cancer treatment

SmithPatrick6Tooth decay can be a side effect of radiation for cancer treatment, because of a condition called dry mouth.

Dentist Patrick Smith, assistant professor of surgery and residency program director of the dental services and clinic at Upstate, explains.

What is going on?

“Radiation of the head and neck, in particular, and some chemotherapy drugs can lead to xerostomia, or dry mouth, which is any condition in which the patient notes that their mouth is less moist than it used to be. They are just not producing saliva like they once did.

“Why is that bad? Because any plaque or calculus (hardened plaque also called tartar) that exists on the teeth will only accelerate potential decay. In addition to helping wash away food particles, saliva actually helps with digestion and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria. So when saliva is reduced, it can lead to problems.”

How can decay be prevented?

“Fluoride treatments, routine brushing, and accelerated dental checkups — maybe every fourth months instead of every six.”

Can dry mouth be treated?

“There are medications that can be prescribed for severe cases, to stimulate saliva production, and you might want to try a prescription or over-the-counter rinse or moisturizer.

“It may also help to sip water or suck ice chips throughout the day. And, avoid products – including caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sugary foods – which make the situation worse.”

Does dry mouth go away once the cancer is gone?

“Radiation really dries out the salivary glands, and that’s a long-term process. It is not something that you are going to recover from quickly. In fact, some patients never recover, which is why dentists need to see patients with new cancer diagnoses early.

“When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it’s very important that they visit their dentist before they start treatment to determine if they have any particular areas of concern. Do they have a potential for abscess development? Do they have decay in their teeth?

“If you don’t have a dentist, ask your oncology team for a referral. Here at Upstate we have the dental service, and we work closely with our oncology associates.”

Symptoms of dry mouth

  • dryness in mouth, throat
  • saliva that seems thick or stringy
  • bad breath
  • difficulty chewing, speaking, swallowing
  • altered sense of taste
  • burning sensation in the mouth
  • problems wearing dentures
  • more frequent tooth decay
  • gum irritation, gum disease
  • mouth sores or cracked lips
  • dry, rough tongue

Sources: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, Mayo Clinic

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