Mouth care and cancer - Maggie's Centres

Mouth care and cancer

Some cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiotherapy (to head and neck),  can cause a sore and/or dry mouth. This can sometimes lead to infections. It can also affect your appetite, and ability to eat and drink.  Understandably, if your mouth is tender and painful, your mood can be affected too.

A sore and/or dry mouth cannot always be prevented, but letting your healthcare team know of any mouth problems early on, means your symptoms can be treated quickly.

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of mouth problems during your treatment, and ways to help ease discomfort. 

The information on this page will help you to find out more about mouth care and cancer.  We’ll focus on ways to help prevent and manage the symptoms, including how Maggie’s can support you.

Mouth care and cancer explained

If you’ve recently received a cancer diagnosis, you and your family will have had a great deal of information to absorb. On top of details of the cancer itself, you’ll be hearing about the various treatment side effects you may experience. Mouth problems may sound a minor issue - but it can be uncomfortable. 

When you’re having cancer treatment,  your healthcare team will discuss the importance of mouth care.  The reason for this is because some cancer treatments cause a sore/dry mouth. 

With chemotherapy, and bone marrow transplants, the lining of your mouth can be affected, and this can lead to mouth ulcers, a sore mouth and gums, and cause infections. Radiotherapy, especially to the head and neck, can also cause mouth problems. Like chemotherapy, it can cause swelling, redness, and sores on the lining of your lips, tongue, and mouth. This is known as mucositis.

Your appetite can be affected as the treatments sometimes cause taste changes.  A dry mouth and discomfort may make eating and drinking more difficult too. Some of your cancer drugs, including pain medication, can also cause a dry mouth and you may find you have bad breath at times.

Keeping your mouth moist, clean and healthy can help prevent these problems and help you feel more comfortable.  Sometimes, even with the steps you take to look after your oral care, you may still develop a sore mouth.  Let your healthcare team know about any mouth symptoms you’re having,  as they can prescribe medications and mouthwashes to help. 

Managing mouth care

If you’re starting treatment, or have a cancer which is affecting your mouth, there are several things you can do to help prevent and ease symptoms.  

  • Dental check pre treatment:  If you’re going to have chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant or radiotherapy (head and neck), you may be advised to see your dentist beforehand.  It is a good idea to have your teeth checked, as dental problems during treatment may cause infection and be difficult to treat. 
  • Buy a soft toothbrush: One for young children, for example, for cleaning tender mouth and gums during treatment, as your normal toothbrush may be too abrasive. Clean your teeth 3 times a day, after meals. This includes dentures if you wear them.
  • Dental flossing:  you should check with your healthcare team if gently flossing your teeth during treatment is OK.  Sometimes with chemotherapy, your blood platelets can be low, so there is more risk of your gums bleeding.
  • Try using alcohol free mouthwash instead of toothpaste if your gums and mouth are sore, or toothpaste and brushing is making you feel sick.
  • Drink plenty of fluids: This will help keep your mouth hydrated, preferably water,  fruit and vegetable juices. Having sips of water during meals, can also help lubricate a dry mouth and help you eat.
  • Look out for signs of mucositis (when the mouth lining is temporarily damaged) -  symptoms include sensitivity to hot, cold and spicy foods, white spots, or white coating to areas of your mouth including your tongue, bleeding, or painful/dry mouth. Let your healthcare team know quickly. They can check for possible infection, and give you medicines and mouthwashes to ease the symptoms.
  • Mouthwashes, lozenges and drops:  Your healthcare team may provide various treatments to help ease discomfort and prevent or treat infection - use them regularly. If they’re not working, let your healthcare team know. Some mouthwashes can sting if your gums and mouth are tender, so check with your pharmacist/healthcare team which ones are most suitable.
  • Opt for moist meals, and avoid spicy food: This will help you eat if your mouth is sore and dry.
  • Fresh pineapple or unsweetened tinned pineapple can help clean the mouth and palate, and can be refreshing.
  • Try crushed/chips of ice or lollies to suck . This can moisten the mouth and help ease mouth discomfort. Let the ice melt a little before using, as ice can have sharp edges.
  •  If your mouth is very dry and you’re finding it difficult to swallow, let your doctor know. They can prescribe artificial saliva, which moistens the mouth.
  • Lip balm helps moisten the lips: Your lips may become dry and cracked. Use lip balm, or vaseline to ease the symptoms.
  • Nutritional advice:  You may be worried that you’re not managing to eat well, because of your sore mouth. Maggie’s can provide advice and workshops on healthy eating during treatment, and you’re welcome to drop into the centre and ask questions. Our cancer support specialists can provide information and support.

When to seek further help

  • A sore mouth can make you feel fed up. You may think you just have to put up with the symptoms. However, it’s important to let a doctor/hospital team  know straight away if your temperature is raised, your mouth gums are bleeding a lot, or you have lots of white spots/white coating to gums, tongue or back of the throat. You may have an infection or low blood count which will need treating.
  • A painful and dry mouth can affect how you feel emotionally. It may be that, on top of your treatment and diagnosis, the day to day side effects of treatment are getting you down. It’s natural to have low days, but if you’re finding your mood is badly affected, and you’re becoming depressed and/or anxious, do let your doctor and hospital team know. They can prescribe treatments to ease your mouth problems, as well as talk through how you are feeling. 

What now?

Have a read through the links to blogs and information we have suggested on this page.  You will find a range of tips and helpful suggestions.

Visit your local Maggie’s Centre or join in our online forums, where you can learn about mouth care and cancer, and speak with others about your experiences. 

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