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Chemo and your mouth


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Chemotherapy and oral care

Adapted from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research by HealthGate Editorial Staff

Back to Oral Health Center

While chemotherapy helps treat cancer, it can also cause side effects that affect the mouth and could cause you to delay or stop treatment. To help prevent serious problems, see a dentist at least 2 weeks before starting chemotherapy. A dentist can help prevent mouth problems.

How does chemotherapy affect the mouth?

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer. These drugs kill cancer cells, but they may also harm normal cells, including cells in the mouth. Side effects include problems with your teeth and gums; the soft, moist lining of your mouth; and the glands that make saliva (spit). It's important to know that side effects in the mouth can be serious. The side effects can hurt and make it hard to eat, talk, and swallow. You are more likely to get an infection, which can be dangerous when you are receiving cancer treatment. If the side effects are bad, you may not be able to keep up with your cancer treatment. Your doctor may need to cut back on your cancer treatment or may even stop it.

What mouth problems does chemotherapy cause?

Different people have different side effects from chemotherapy. The problems depend on the chemotherapy drugs and how your body reacts to them. You may have these problems only during treatment or for a short time after treatment ends:

Painful mouth and gums

Dry mouth

Burning, peeling, or swelling tongue


Change in taste

You can see or feel most of these problems. Check your mouth every day.

Why should I see a dentist?

You may be surprised that your dentist is important in your cancer treatment. If you go to the dentist before chemotherapy begins, you can help prevent serious mouth problems. Side effects often happen because a person's mouth is not healthy before chemotherapy starts. Not all mouth problems can be avoided but the fewer side effects you have, the more likely you will stay on your cancer treatment schedule. It's important for your dentist and cancer doctor to talk to each other about your cancer treatment. Be sure to give your dentist your cancer doctor's phone number.

When should I see a dentist?

You need to see the dentist at least 2 weeks before chemotherapy begins. If you have already started chemotherapy and didn't go to a dentist, see one as soon as possible.

What will the dentist and dental hygienist do?

Check your teeth. Take x-rays. Take care of mouth problems. Show you how to take care of your mouth to prevent side effects. The dentist will do a complete exam.

What can I do to keep my mouth healthy?

You can do a lot to keep your mouth healthy during chemotherapy. The first step is to see a dentist before you start cancer treatment. Once your treatment starts, it's important to look in your mouth every day for sores or other changes. These tips can help prevent and treat a sore mouth:

Keep your mouth moist. Drink a lot of water.

Suck ice chips.

Use sugarless gum or sugar-free hard candy.

Use a saliva substitute to help moisten your mouth.

Clean your mouth, tongue, and gums.

Brush your teeth, gums, and tongue with an extra-soft toothbrush after every meal and at bedtime.

If brushing hurts, soften the bristles in warm water.

Use a fluoride toothpaste.

Don't use mouthwashes with alcohol in them.

Floss your teeth gently every day. If your gums bleed and hurt, avoid the areas that are bleeding or sore, but keep flossing your other teeth.

Rinse your mouth several times a day with a solution of 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 1/8 teaspoon salt in one cup of warm water. Follow with a plain water rinse.

Dentures that don't fit well can cause problems. Talk to your cancer doctor or dentist about your dentures.

Remember to stay away from:

Sharp, crunchy foods, like taco chips, that could scrape or cut your mouth.

Foods that are hot, spicy, or high in acid, like citrus fruits and juices, which can irritate your mouth.

Sugary foods, like candy or soda, that could cause cavities.

Toothpicks, because they can cut your mouth.

All tobacco products.

Alcoholic drinks.

If your mouth is sore, watch what you eat and drink.

Choose foods that are good for you and easy to chew and swallow. Take small bites of food, chew slowly, and sip liquids with your meals. Eat soft, moist foods such as cooked cereals, mashed potatoes, and scrambled eggs. If you have trouble swallowing, soften your food with gravy, sauces, broth, yogurt, or other liquids. Sipping liquids with your meals will make eating easier.

Call your doctor or nurse when your mouth hurts.

Work with them to find medicines to help control the pain. If the pain continues, talk to your cancer doctor about stronger medicines.

If your child is having chemotherapy

Chemotherapy causes other side effects in children, depending on the child's age. Problems with teeth are the most common. Permanent teeth may be slow to come in and may look different from normal teeth. Teeth may fall out. The dentist will check your child's jaws for any growth problems. Before chemotherapy begins, take your child to a dentist. The dentist will check your child's mouth carefully and pull loose teeth or those that may become loose during treatment. Ask the dentist or hygienist what you can do to help your child with mouth care. Your child has special dental needs.

Remember: Visit your dentist before your cancer treatment starts. Take good care of your mouth during treatment. Talk regularly with your cancer doctor and dentist about any mouth problems you have. Call your cancer doctor or dentist if you have any mouth problems.

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