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Mouth and neck radiation - discharge

Alternative names

Radiation - mouth and neck - discharge

What to expect

When you have radiation treatment for cancer, your body goes through changes.

Two weeks after radiation treatment starts, you might notice changes in your skin. Most of these symptoms go away after your treatments have stopped.

  • Your skin and mouth may turn red.
  • Your skin might start to peel or get dark.
  • Your skin may itch.
  • The skin under your chin may get droopy.

You may also notice changes in your mouth. You may have:

  • Dry mouth
  • Mouth pain
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Lost sense of taste
  • No appetite
  • Stiff jaw
  • Trouble opening your mouth very wide
  • Dentures may no longer fit well, and may cause sores in your mouth

Your body hair will fall out 2 to 3 weeks after radiation treatment starts, but only in the area being treated. When your hair grows back, it may be different than before.

Skin care

When you have radiation treatment, colored markings are drawn on your skin. Do not remove them. These show where to aim the radiation. If they come off, do not redraw them. Tell your doctor instead.

To care for the treatment area:

  • Wash gently with lukewarm water only. Do not scrub your skin.
  • Do not use soaps.
  • Pat dry instead of rubbing dry.
  • Do not use lotions, ointments, makeup, perfumed powders, or other perfumed products on this area. Ask your doctor what is OK to use.
  • Use only an electric razor to shave.
  • Do not scratch or rub your skin.
  • Do not put heating pads or ice bags on the treatment area.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing around your neck.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any breaks or openings in your skin.

Keep the area that is being treated out of direct sunlight. Wear clothing that protects you from the sun, such as a hat with a broad brim and a shirt with long sleeves. Use sunscreen. Talk with your doctor or nurse about using sun block.

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.
  • 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.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages.
  • Do not eat spicy foods, acidic foods, or foods that are very hot or cold. These will bother your mouth and throat.
  • Use lip care products to keep your lips from drying out and cracking.
  • Sip water to ease mouth dryness.
  • Eat sugar-free candy or chew sugar-free gum to keep your mouth moist.

If you use dentures, wear them as infrequently as possible. Stop wearing your dentures if you get sores on your gums.

Ask your doctor or dentist about medicine to help with mouth dryness or pain.

Other self-care

You need to eat enough protein and calories to keep your weight up. Ask your doctor about liquid food supplements that can help.

Tips to make eating easier:

  • Choose foods that you like.
  • Try foods with gravy, broths, or sauces. They will be easier to chew and swallow.
  • Eat small meals, and eat more often during the day.
  • Cut your food into small pieces.
  • Ask your doctor or dentist if artificial saliva might be helpful for you.

Drink at least 8 to 12 cups of liquid each day, not including coffee, tea, or other drinks that have caffeine in them.

If pills are hard to swallow, try crushing them and mixing them with ice cream or another soft food. Ask your doctor or pharmacist before crushing your medicines. Some medicines do not work when crushed.

You may feel tired after a few days. If you feel tired:

  • Do not try to do too much in a day. You probably will not be able to do everything you are used to doing.
  • Try to get more sleep at night. Rest during the day when you can.
  • Take a few weeks off work, or work less.

Follow-up care

See your dentist often. Your doctor may check your blood counts regularly, especially if the radiation treatment area on your body is large.

References

National Cancer Institute. Radiation therapy and you: support for people with cancer. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/radiation-therapy-and-you. Accessed May 7, 2014.

Perry MC. Approach to the patient with cancer. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 182.

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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