Oral Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Xerostomia

This side effect is sometimes overlooked but there can be times when the oral side effects of chemotherapy may even get in the way of the actual treatment of breast cancer. 

When you are dealing with mouth discomfort it does not seem to be a big a deal, but in fact, if you are experiencing oral problems, your oncologist may occasionally have to delay or stop your treatments. If you do not seek help or advice with regard to these side effects, it could lead to other conditions that may include: dehydration, loss or distortion of taste and malnutrition and weight loss.

As we have discussed in our previous issues there are simple ways in order to prevent and manage the oral side effects of chemotherapy. By paying more attention to your oral health, you will feel better and this in turn will contribute to your overall wellbeing.

There are a couple of things that you can introduce into your home oral hygiene programme to prevent or minimise oral side effects:

• Use a toothbrush with soft bristles

• Use a fluoridated, non-flavoured toothpaste

• Brush your teeth and gums GENTLY after each meal

• Keep your toothbrush clean and dry in between usage

• Use a non-alcohol mouthwash to rinse well after brushing

• Floss gently every day to avoid gum irritation

• Regularly apply lip moisturizer.

Take control of your oral health during treatment by being very particular about your diet, rinsing your mouth regularly, maintaining good oral hygiene and staying well-hydrated. By increasing the salivary flow in your mouth, you reduce bacterial activity. It is important to remember to report any changes within your mouth to your oncologist or dentist as they occur.

Xerostomia is the clinical term for having a dry mouth. It is one of the side effects of certain chemotherapy drugs. Normal levels of saliva have powerful action against the growth of bacteria and viruses in the mouth and throat. Xerostomia is a result of decreased salivary flow, is one of the most uncomfortable symptoms and may cause more serious dental problems such as halitosis (bad breath) and tooth decay.

It is advisable for you to visit your dentist or oncologist to determine the cause and evaluate your oral and overall health if you start suffering from a dry mouth. Fortunately there are common treatments and remedies used to treat xerostomia and to restore a sense of harmony in your mouth. There are a number of ways to control dry mouth:

• Sip on water at regular intervals

• Chew sugar-free chewing gum (preferably with Xylitol)

• Practicing regular oral hygiene as discussed in the second issue

• Using non-alcolhol, fluoridated mouthwashes

• Use a tongue scraper / cleaner to clean the tongue thoroughly

• Limit caffeine intake as caffeine may dry your mouth even more

• Try over-the-counter saliva substitutes

• Stop any form of tobacco

• Try to breathe through your nose and not your mouth

• Use a room humidifier at night to add moisture to the air

Once the cause has been identified xerostomia can be well managed and life will be more bearable for you.

Please remember: always inform your oncologist if you experience any unusual symptoms.

Written by Helena van der Linden

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