Radiation therapy (radiotherapy) for head and neck cancer can produce many side effects. These include redness and inflammation of the skin (dermatitis), redness and sores in the mouth and throat (mucositis), dry mouth (which can lead to difficulty with swallowing and an increased risk of tooth cavities), and an abnormal or absent sense of smell or taste. Sore throat is usually the most prominent distressing effect of radiation therapy for head and neck cancer. A stiff jaw and decreased ability to open the mouth may also occur. Nausea is possible but not common. Food intake is often impaired; if this is severe, it may be necessary to have a feeding tube inserted into the stomach. Radiation of the neck can also cause the thyroid gland to become hypoactive, resulting in hypothyroidism.
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Honor Society of Nursing (STTI) answered
Patrick Maguire, MD, Oncology, answeredAcute side effects of radiation therapy (RT) to the head and neck region include skin reaction, sore mouth and/or throat, fatigue, and difficulty swallowing. Long-term potential side effects include dry mouth, swallowing problems, and a rare chance of focal injury to the jaw or other structures, requiring surgical repair.
Over the past decade, widespread incorporation of intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) for treatment of squamous cell cancers of the head and neck (HNSCC) has decreased the risk of permanent dry mouth (also called xerostomia), which was previously an almost guaranteed side effect of RT. Now radiation oncologists are usually able to minimize the RT dose that's delivered to one or both parotid glands, and spare more salivary function.