Dental care may be the last thing on a cancer patient's mind, but chemotherapy and radiation treatments often have side effects that manifest in the mouth. Paying attention to basic oral health should be an important part of a cancer patient's routine in order to prevent dental problems that could hinder treatment.
Who Is at Risk?
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) estimates that 40 percent of patients receiving cancer treatment therapy are at risk of oral complications. That risk increases to 80 percent when a patient receives a stem cell transplant, and nearly all patients with head and neck cancers will have an oral complication. But don't worry, while complications may seem imminent, there's a lot you can do to prevent or minimize their severity.
Proactive Approach: Pretreatment Oral Care
The NIDCR recommends seeing a dentist at least one month before starting chemo or radiation therapy. With this proactive approach, your dentist can take care of any existing dental problems you might have and advise you as your cancer treatment progresses, lessening your chance of serious complications. You and your dentist can also work on a custom home-care routine personalized for you and your specific condition.
How to Prevent and Treat Oral Complications
Keep your mouth extra clean by carefully brushing with a soft-bristled brush and mild-tasting fluoride toothpaste after every meal and before bed. Floss carefully and use an alcohol-free mouthwash for that added protection against bacteria. Toothbrushes can harbor bacteria; so keep a supply of new ones handy.
You may notice some bleeding when brushing and flossing, and occasionally when you eat. This is usually due to a low blood platelet count, but check with your dentist or cancer treatment team if you feel that the bleeding is becoming unusually heavy. Even though you have some bleeding and tenderness, don't stop cleaning your mouth, just be gentle.
One of the most frequent side effects of cancer treatment is dry mouth. You can use artificial saliva products, sugarless lozenges and sugarless gum for relief. And frequently sipping water moistens your mouth and helps quench your thirst. Without the normal amount of saliva to neutralize the acids in your mouth, you are more susceptible to tooth decay and gum disease. Your dentist may recommend a prescription strength fluoride rinse, such as Colgate® Phos-Flur®, to give you further protection against cavities.
If the lining of your mouth becomes red and inflamed, you may have what is called oral mucositis. This complication makes eating uncomfortable and your mouth can become infected more easily. You'll want to stay away from alcohol and tobacco products, and watch the foods that you eat. Avoid spicy or acidic foods and hot foods or drinks, as well as "hard" foods that could irritate or cut your gums or the lining of your mouth. Also, ask your dentist about using Colgate® Orabase® for mouth pain and to promote healing.
It's not unusual to develop a fungal infection as result of the antibiotics and steroid drugs needed to counter the low white blood cell count during chemotherapy. These treatments tend to upset the bacterial balance in your mouth, making a fungal infection possible. If you have a burning sensation in your mouth, changes in taste or discomfort when wearing dentures, call your dentist; he may have a remedy for you that will take care of this problem.
Keep Basic Oral Health a Constant
Cancer treatment side effects vary from patient to patient. You may find that some of your side effects are just minor annoyances, while others are more serious. But good oral health care before, during and after cancer therapy will lessen complications and improve your quality of life as you continue on your journey to getting well and strong once again.