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Cancer and its treatment can affect virtually every part of your body, including your teeth, mouth and gums. What’s more, poor oral health can increase your risk of experiencing treatment side effects and possibly interfere with certain cancer therapies.

Before starting cancer treatment, it’s important to see a dentist who can ensure that your teeth, gums and mouth are as healthy as possible. This can help reduce your risk of infection, which can compromise your body’s healing capacity. You should also discuss your dental health with your oncologist, who can explain in detail what you might expect during your treatment.

Oral health changes during cancer treatment

While receiving cancer treatment, some people experience:

  • Mouth sores – Certain chemotherapy medications and radiation therapy to the head or neck can cause sores to develop in the mucous membranes that line the mouth, throat and digestive tract. Known as mucositis, this condition can cause pain and infections, making it difficult to swallow, eat and drink.
  • Dry mouth – Some cancer treatments can damage the salivary glands, disrupt the flow of saliva or cause dry mouth (xerostomia). In addition to discomfort, xerostomia can lead to infections and tooth decay because saliva helps balance the levels of bacteria in the mouth.
  • Sensitive gums – Certain chemotherapy medications can cause the gums to become tender and inflamed.
  • Jaw pain – Radiation therapy to the head and neck may cause pain and stiffness in the jaw.
  • Taste changes – Some foods and beverages may taste differently than before, especially bitter, sweet or salty items.

How to protect your dental health during cancer treatment

Maintaining your oral health before, during and after cancer treatment may lessen some of the side effects, help you feel better and allow you to focus more fully on your recovery. Here are some ways to do so:

  • Brush your teeth often – Brush gently with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Mix a half-teaspoon of salt with four cups of water and use this gentle solution in place of toothpaste.
  • Floss your teeth and rinse your mouth often – Frequent flossing and rinsing with water can reduce irritation by keeping food away from your teeth and gums. Avoid using mouthwashes that contain alcohol.
  • Suck on ice – During chemotherapy sessions, request ice chips or sugar-free popsicles, which can help alleviate mouth soreness.
  • Stay well-hydrated – Drink plenty of water to help relieve dry mouth. Avoid acidic beverages, such as orange and cranberry juice, which can be irritating.
  • See your dentist regularly – Throughout your cancer treatment, keep your dentist informed of any changes in your oral health.

If you have questions about how your cancer treatment may affect your dental health, you are welcome to talk with a specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center. To request an appointment, please call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.