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Dry mouth

What to Expect

Some cancer treatments and medicines can cause dry mouth.

Symptoms you may have:

  • Your saliva will be thick and stringy.
  • You may have cuts or cracks in your lips or at the corners of your mouth.
  • Your dentures may no longer fit well. This may cause sores on your gums.
  • You will be thirsty.
  • It may be hard to swallow and talk.
  • You may lose your sense of taste.
  • Your tongue and mouth may feel sore.

You may get mouth sores, mouth pain, cavities (dental caries), or gum disease.

Take Care of Your Mouth

Brush your teeth and gums 2 or 3 times a day for 2 - 3 minutes each time. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles.

  • When you brush, rinse your brush in hot water every 30 seconds to keep the bristles soft.
  • Let your toothbrush air dry between brushings.
  • Choose toothpaste with care.

If toothpaste makes your mouth sore, brush with a solution of 1 teaspoon of salt mixed with 4 cups of water. Pour a small amount into a clean cup to dip your toothbrush into each time you brush. Use toothpaste with fluoride.

Floss gently 1 time a day. Rinse your mouth 5 or 6 times a day. Use any of these solutions when you rinse:

  • 1 teaspoon of salt in 4 cups of water
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 1 cup (8 ounces) of water
  • ½ teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons baking soda in 4 cups of water

Avoid rinses that have alcohol in them. You may use an antibacterial rinse 2 - 4 times a day for gum disease. Rinse for 1 - 2 minutes each time.

Do not eat foods or drinks that have a lot of sugar in them. They may cause tooth decay. Use lip care products to keep your lips from drying out and cracking. Sip water to ease mouth dryness.

Eating sugar-free candy or chewing sugar-free gum may also help.

Talk with your dentist about:

  • Solutions to replace minerals in your teeth
  • Saliva substitutes
  • Drugs that help your salivary glands make more saliva

Diet

You need to eat enough protein and calories from other foods to keep your weight up. See also: Eating extra calories when you need them - adults

Tips to make eating easier:

  • Choose foods that you like.
  • Serve foods with gravy, broths, or sauces to make them easier to chew and swallow.
  • Eat small meals, and eat more often.
  • Cut your food into small pieces to make it easier to chew.
  • Ask your health care provider or dentist if artificial saliva might help you.

Drink at least 8 - 10 glasses of liquid each day (not including coffee, tea, or other drinks that have caffeine).

  • Drink liquids with your meals.
  • Sip cool drinks during the day.
  • Keep a glass of water next to your bed at night. Drink when you get up to use the bathroom or other times you wake up.

Ask your health care provider about liquid food supplements. These can help you meet your energy needs.

Avoid alcoholic drinks. They will bother your throat. Also avoid foods that are very spicy, have a lot of acid or are very hot or cold.

If pills are hard to swallow, try crushing them with some ice cream or another soft food. Ask your health care provider if it is okay to crush your pills. Some pills do not work if they are crushed.

References

Furness S, Worthington HV, Bryan G, Birchenough S, McMillan R. Interventions for the management of dry mouth: topical therapies. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;12:CD008934. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008934.pub2.

Johnson R, Johnson G. Integrating palliative and curative care strategies in the practice of otolaryngology. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 81.

Updated: 5/13/2012

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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