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What are the side effects of radiation therapy for head and neck cancer?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

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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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.