Oral Health Care for Cancer Patients

Good oral health care is important for everyone, but for cancer patients, taking care of the mouth is even more critical.

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According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), more than 30 percent of patients who are treated for cancer develop oral complications. Radiation and chemotherapy can profoundly affect oral tissues, resulting in problems that can complicate cancer treatment and compromise quality of life.

Fortunately, with the right professional care, cancer patients can avoid these challenges.

Oral Health Complications Related to Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy share some common oral health side effects. Both types of treatments can lead to viral, bacterial or fungal infections. They can also cause the mucous membranes to swell or develop ulcers, which boosts the risk of infection and increases pain in some patients.

Dry mouth is another frequent complaint after having chemotherapy or radiation treatment. This condition can change the way foods taste and impair the ability to eat, swallow and speak.

Chemotherapy can also cause neurotoxicity. With this complication, patients experience a deep burning pain that feels like a toothache, but they don’t actually have a dental problem. Bleeding in the mouth is also common after this cancer treatment.

Radiation therapy increases the lifelong risk for dental decay. Plus, this treatment can cause tissue fibrosis, which affects the chewing muscles and restricts the ability to open the mouth normally. And after high-dosage therapy, osteonecrosis, or bone tissue death, can result.

Why Cancer Patients Need a Pretreatment Oral Health Evaluation

Prior to undergoing cancer treatment, the NIDCR recommends that patients have a thorough oral health care examination with an experienced dentist or oral surgeon. Doing so can reduce the risk and severity of any complications that may result from chemotherapy and radiation.

If possible, patients should schedule this professional evaluation at least one month before cancer treatment begins, to allow enough time for healing from any necessary dental or oral surgery procedures.

To prevent complications, it may be necessary to treat infections and stabilize potential sites of future infections. Compromised teeth may also need treatment, and nonrestorable teeth may require extraction.

Beneficial Oral Health Care Habits for Cancer Patients

Aside from having a comprehensive dental evaluation, patients can take steps to avoid or minimize the oral side effects of cancer treatment.

In some cases, a supplemental fluoride treatment regimen may be recommended to prevent cavity formation. Fluoride is typically applied via soft, custom-fitted plastic trays. All cancer patients are advised to gently brush their teeth, gums and tongue after each meal and before bed. Routine flossing is also important, though areas that are sore or bleeding should be skipped.

Rinsing the mouth periodically with a baking-soda-and-salt solution, followed by plain water, can also be helpful. Avoid spicy or acidic foods and sugar-laden candy, gum and soda to help prevent further damage. Cancer patients should also refrain from using toothpicks, tobacco products and alcohol.

The expert team at Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery of Utah understands the needs of cancer patients, and we can help maintain your oral health care during treatment. Call our Salt Lake City office to schedule a professional evaluation today.