Dry mouth during cancer treatment
Chemotherapy - dry mouth; Radiation therapy - dry mouth; Transplant - dry mouth; Transplantation - dry mouth
What to Expect
Some cancer treatments and medicines can cause dry mouth. Symptoms you may have include:
- Mouth sores
- Thick and stringy saliva
- Cuts or cracks in your lips, or at the corners of your mouth
- Your dentures may no longer fit well, causing sores on the gums
- Difficulty swallowing or talking
- Loss of your sense of taste
- Soreness or pain in the tongue and mouth
- Cavities (dental caries)
- Gum disease
Take Care of Your Mouth
Take good care of your mouth during cancer treatment. Not doing so can lead to an increase in bacteria in your mouth. The bacteria can cause infection in your mouth, which can spread to other parts of your body.
- Brush your teeth and gums 2 to 3 times a day for 2 to 3 minutes each time.
- Use a toothbrush with soft bristles.
- Use 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:
- One teaspoon of salt in 4 cups of water
- One teaspoon of baking soda in 8 ounces (240 ml) of water
- Half teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons baking soda in 4 cups of water
DO NOT use mouth rinses that have alcohol in them. You may use an antibacterial rinse 2 to 4 times a day for gum disease.
Other tips for taking care of your mouth include:
- Avoiding foods or drinks that have a lot of sugar in them that may cause tooth decay
- Using lip care products to keep your lips from getting dry and cracking
- Sipping water to ease mouth dryness
- Eating sugar-free candy or chewing sugar-free gum
Talk with your dentist about:
- Solutions to replace minerals in your teeth
- Saliva substitutes
- Drugs that help your salivary glands make more saliva
You need to eat enough protein and calories to keep your weight up. Ask your doctor about liquid food supplements that can help you meet your caloric needs and keep up your strength.
To make eating easier:
- Choose foods that you like.
- Eat foods with gravy, broth, or sauce 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 doctor or dentist if artificial saliva might help you.
Drink 8 to 12 cups 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.
DO NOT drink alcohol or beverages that contain alcohol. They will bother your throat.
Avoid foods that are very spicy, that contain a lot of acid, or that are very hot or very cold.
If pills are hard to swallow, ask your doctor if it is OK to crush your pills. (Some pills do not work if they are crushed.) If it is OK, crush them up and add them to some ice cream or another soft food.
National Cancer Institute. Chemotherapy and you: support for people with cancer. Updated May 2007. www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/chemotherapy-and-you.pdf. Accessed March 20, 2016.
National Cancer Institute: PDQ Oral complications of chemotherapy and head/neck radiation. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated January 4, 2016. www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/mouth-throat/oral-complications-hp-pdq. Accessed March 20, 2016.
Sideras K, Hallemeier CL, Loprinzi CL. Oral complications. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, et al, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 43.
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.