Caring for Your Mouth During Chemo

By Stacey Feintuch

Most people identify hair loss and nausea as being the common side effects of chemo, but the treatment can also wreak havoc in other ways, such as causing discomfort in the mouth. People undergoing chemo may experience mouth sores; painful gums; a burning, peeling or swelling tongue; infections; and a change in the ability to taste. The kinds of problems vary according to the chemo drugs you’re taking and your body’s reaction to them. Be sure to take these steps:

See your dentist before treatment
You’re more likely than usual to get a mouth infection during chemo, and if it’s serious you may need to reduce—or even stop—your chemo treatment. That’s why you should visit your dentist before your chemo treatment starts. Side effects often occur because your mouth is unhealthy prior to chemotherapy. Not all problems are preventable, but it’s better to address the ones that are by visiting your dentist.

At the dentist, you’ll have your teeth examined, receive x-rays and be provided any necessary dental work. You’ll also get tips on how to take care of your mouth to prevent side effects.

During treatment
Once you've started treatment, examine your mouth daily for sores and other changes. To help stave off oral issues, follow these suggestions.

Keep your mouth moist. Drink plenty of water, suck ice chips, use sugarless gum or sugar-free hard candy and use a saliva substitute to help moisten your mouth.

Clean your mouth, tongue and gums. Brush your teeth, gums and tongue with an extra-soft toothbrush after every meal and at bedtime. Use a mild-tasting fluoride toothpaste (avoid those with mint flavor, which can be irritating). Floss daily and gently, staying clear of areas that are bleeding or sore.

Be mindful of what you put into your mouth. So as not to scrape or cut your mouth, be wary of sharp-edged items like tortilla chips and toothpicks. Prevent mouth irritation by forgoing hot, spicy or acidic foods. If your mouth bothers you despite the foregoing precautions, change how you eat and drink. Here's how:

  • Take small bites of foods, chewing slowly.
  • Eat soft, moist foods, such as mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs and cooked cereals.
  • To make swallowing easier, soften foods with a liquid like gravy, sauce, broth or yogurt. Sipping liquids with meals will help, too.

 If your mouth continues to hurt, contact your doctor, who can prescribe pain-relieving medication.

Published September 2011

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