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Oral mucositis

What to expect

Radiation therapy or chemotherapy may cause mucositis (tissue swelling) in your mouth. You may have symptoms such as:

  • Mouth pain.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Infection.
  • Bleeding, if you are getting chemotherapy. Radiation therapy usually does not lead to bleeding.

With chemotherapy, mucositis heals by itself when there is no infection. Healing usually takes 2 to 4 weeks. Mucositis caused by radiation therapy usually lasts 6 to 8 weeks, depending on how long you have radiation treatment.

Taking care of your mouth

  • Brush your teeth and gums 2 or 3 times a day for 2 to 3 minutes each time.
  • Use a toothbrush with soft bristles.
  • Use a toothpaste with fluoride.
  • Let your toothbrush air dry between brushings.
  • 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.
  • Floss gently once a day.

Rinse your mouth 5 or 6 times a day for 1 to 2 minutes each time. Use one of the following solutions when you rinse:

  • 1 teaspoon of salt in 4 cups of water
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces of water
  • One half teaspoon of salt and 2 tablespoons of baking soda in 4 cups of water

Do not use rinses that have alcohol in them. You may use an antibacterial rinse 2 to 4 times a day for gum disease.

To further take care of your mouth:

  • Do not eat foods or drink beverages that have a lot of sugar in them. They may cause tooth decay.
  • Use lip care products to keep your lips from drying and cracking.
  • Sip water to ease dry mouth.
  • Eat sugar-free candy or chew sugar-free gum to help keep your mouth moist.
  • Stop wearing your dentures if they cause you to get sores on your gums.

Pain relief

Ask your doctor about treatments you can use in your mouth, including:

  • Bland rinses
  • Mucosal coating agents
  • Water-soluble lubricating agents, including artificial saliva
  • Pain killers

Your doctor may also give you pills for pain or medicine to fight infection in your mouth.

References

National Cancer Institute: Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®). Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated April 23, 2014. http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/oralcomplications/HealthProfessional. Accessed May 7, 2014.

Updated: 5/7/2014

Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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