How should I care for my mouth during radiation for head or neck cancer?

Randall D. Stastny, DMD
Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery

It is always important to take good care of your teeth, but this is especially true when having radiation treatment to the head and neck. Unfortunately one of the side effects of the radiation is that the salivary glands will stop functioning properly. This causes the teeth to be very susceptible to dental cavities. Also, once the jaws have been irradiated they do not heal as well, so it is not always a good idea to extract a tooth after radiation treatment has been done. For these reasons, it is important to see your dentist, have any questionable teeth removed and get any fillings done before radiation treatment starts. During and after your radiation treatment it is very important to continue to brush and floss and use a daily prescription fluoride. Artificial saliva is also helpful to counteract the dryness and sores from the radiation treatment.

If you are receiving radiation therapy, it is important to take good care of your mouth. Keeping your mouth clean will help you feel more comfortable and help you to eat.
A decrease in the amount of saliva may lead to dental cavities. For this you may be referred to a qualified dentist before you begin your radiation treatments. Your dentist will take care of all dental treatments.
Regular mouth care includes checking, cleaning, and moisturizing your mouth. Here's how to care for your mouth:
  • Check your mouth at least twice a day. Use a light and a mirror to check all areas. Remove dentures, if you wear them. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have mouth pain, sores, and patches in your mouth, or if you cannot eat.
  • Clean your teeth with a soft nylon toothbrush thirty minutes after eating, at bedtime, and when you want to clean your teeth or mouth. Brush gently. Use floss, if it does not hurt.
  • Rinse your mouth before and after meals. Use a mouthwash made with salt, baking soda and water (mix 1 quart of warm water with 1 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda).
  • Don't use commercial mouthwashes that contain alcohol (e.g. Listerine or Scope).
  • Have your dentist show you how to use a discoloring solution or tablet made of harmless red vegetable day which will reveal, by a red color, any plaque you failed to remove in brushing and flossing.
  • Apply moisture such as petroleum jelly or lipstick frequently to keep your lips moist. Do not lick your lips as this will just make them drier.
  • If you wear dentures, remove them and brush them after meals. Rinse your mouth and gently brush you gums. Do not wear loose fitting dentures. Instead, ask your dentist to realign them.
  • See your dentist regularly. Do not have dental work without checking with your doctor or nurse.
  • Tell your radiation oncologist or nurse if you develop sores in your mouth, gums or on your tongue, have mouth pain, find white or yellow patches in your mouth, or have problems eating, drinking or swallowing.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.