Radiation Caries: Four Things You Need to Know

Header Image

If you're undergoing radiation therapy, your oral health may be the last thing on your mind. But surprisingly, it often leads to a number of side-effects inside your mouth, including radiation caries, a type of rampant tooth decay that occurs following treatment. This decay can have serious effects on your oral health, but with your dentist's help, it can be kept under control. Here are four things radiation patients need to know about this oral health issue.

1. What Are the Signs of Radiation Caries?

In the early stages, you may not notice any symptoms. This is because enamel, the outer layer of your teeth, doesn't have any nerves. Once the decay passes through your enamel and into the sensitive tissue inside, however, you do feel pain and sensitivity in the affected teeth. And because this type of decay is rampant, you may notice symptoms in more than one tooth.

2. What Causes Radiation Caries?

Tooth decay forms when bacteria-filled plaque accumulates on your teeth and produces acids that eat away at the teeth's surface. This process plays a major role in the development of radiation caries, but it's not the whole story. Radiation causes a lot of changes inside your mouth that make you more susceptible to tooth decay, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Radiation damages your salivary glands and leads to xerostomia, also known as dry mouth, which has a lot of additional effects other than making your mouth uncomfortable dry. Saliva does more than just moisten your mouth; it has antimicrobial proteins that help to keep decay-causing bacteria under control, as well as mineralizing components which help to keep your tooth enamel strong.

3. How Can They Be Prevented?

If you receive high-dose radiation treatment, you'll have an increased risk of caries moving forward, so it's all the more important to take steps to prevent tooth decay. Because prevention starts at home, ensure that you brush your teeth twice a day for at least two minutes each time, and floss daily. If your gums are sore as a result of radiation therapy, your dentist may recommend using an extra soft-bristled toothbrush such as Colgate® 360°® Enamel Health Sensitive.

But brushing and flossing isn't enough. It's crucial to control your dry mouth symptoms as well, and there are lots of ways this can be done. First and foremost, consider home remedies like sipping water throughout the day, chewing sugar-free gum to stimulate your salivary glands and using commercial products like artificial saliva as a temporary supplement.

Your dentist may recommend a variety of in-office treatments to help prevent radiation caries, too. Whereas more direct fluoride can be applied to your teeth to help enhance your resistance to tooth decay, your dentist may also give you a chlorhexidine rinse to control plaque inside your mouth, as described in the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Of course, professional cleanings to remove plaque and tartar are another way your dentist can help you keep tooth decay under control.

4. How Do Dentists Treat Them?

If you develop this type of dental caries, your dentist can treat it with restorations such as fillings or crowns, depending on the extent of the decay. Fillings are used for small areas of decay, whereas crowns are used for larger areas of decay that have compromised the tooth's structure. If the decay is left untreated, it can lead to an abscess (infection), and your tooth may need to be extracted – so don't put off these necessary office visits.

Radiation caries can be a serious complication of radiation therapy, but with the help of your dental professional, it can be prevented and treated.