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How Xerostomia Occurs During Breast Cancer Treatment

Published date field Last Updated:

Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer and plan to undergo treatment, you probably have many things on your mind. Perhaps the least of which is your oral care. But understanding how chemotherapy and radiation therapy affect your mouth will be pivotal to your oral health during and after treatment. These cancer therapies are incredible, life-saving treatments. But they can come with complications, too, like xerostomia.

Unfortunately, xerostomia is one of the dental problems that can occur with breast cancer treatment. More commonly known as dry mouth, this condition may sound relatively mild, but it can have adverse effects on your oral health. Luckily, there are options for prevention and care! Let's go over the relationship between dry mouth and breast cancer treatment and at-home and professional care you can take to reduce dry mouth. It's important to feel confident about your oral health while you go through cancer treatment!

As you begin to discuss breast cancer treatments with your doctor, you may start to have questions like: Does radiation for breast cancer affect your teeth? What is the relationship between breast cancer radiation and dental treatment? And how can you best protect your smile while going through cancer treatment?

How Likely Is Dry Mouth?

Not everyone develops dry mouth symptoms during breast cancer treatment, but it may occur as a side effect during chemotherapy. Developing dry mouth during chemotherapy may increase your susceptibility to developing oral infections. So it's essential to do your best to maintain oral hygiene during cancer treatment.

Common Complications

Dry mouth can occur during or directly following therapy, and it can usually be reversed. As noted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), a treatment that involves stem cells or a bone marrow transplant can also lead to dry mouth. If your body doesn't respond well to a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, you may develop something called graft-versus-host disease, causing dry mouth.

What Makes Dry Mouth Worse?

While fighting cancer, you may get medications that also have the chance of exacerbating dry mouth. Along with medications that cause dry mouth on their own, chemotherapy and radiation can compound the problem.

Like with other oral health conditions, a poor oral care routine, drinking alcohol, and smoking will make your dry mouth worse. It's also helpful to stop breathing through your mouth to mitigate dry mouth instead of breathing through your nose.

What You Should Do First

At first, it may feel overwhelming to deal with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Dental treatment is probably the last thing on your mind! But it's vital to loop your dental professional into the conversation of care and treatment of your cancer. Be sure to see your dental professional before starting any chemotherapy or radiation. In fact, ASCO recommends you see your dentist at least four weeks before starting treatment for a dental clearance exam. This is so any dental disease can be treated, and your mouth is restored to good oral health, which can prevent oral complications during and after your cancer therapy.

The clearance exam typically includes dental x-rays to diagnose any dental infections. You will also be taught how to care for your mouth during and after your cancer treatment. Your dental professionals will recommend a schedule for future preventive dental care visits, requiring consultation with your oncologist about the appropriate timing during and after your cancer treatment.

How to Combat Dry Mouth at Home

The saliva in our mouths acts as a natural cleanser. It helps wash away food debris and contains properties that neutralize acids, which lead to enamel wear and cavities if left untouched. So when we reduce the amount of saliva in our mouths, this increases the likelihood of developing cavities (dental caries).

You can ultimately help reduce dry mouth complications by staying hydrated and practicing good oral hygiene at home. This includes brushing your teeth twice a day and cleaning between your teeth with floss or a water flosser (also known as interdental cleaning) twice a day. Follow up with mouthwash to wash away any remaining bacteria. Did you know that dry mouth can lead to bad breath later on? That's just one more reason to keep up an excellent oral care routine that makes your breath fresh!

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to reduce dry mouth. They include the following:

  • Stay hydrated and take sips of water throughout the day.
  • Suck on sugarless candies
  • Chew sugarless gum
  • Use a humidifier at night.
  • Avoid smoking, alcohol, caffeine, and other irritants.
  • Drink water along with your meals
  • Use a lip lubricant, like a lip moisturizer, every few hours.
  • Try over-the-counter saliva substitutes like mouth sprays

You'll help your body prepare for cancer treatment by maintaining a robust oral health routine and seeing your dental professional for a checkup. By taking these steps, you should feel confident that you're doing everything you can to maintain a clean and strong smile!

It's best to speak with your dental professional to plan how often they would like to see you while undergoing cancer treatment. And keep up with the at-home preventive care listed above to stay hydrated. With these practices in place, rest assured you can mitigate the oral side effects of breast cancer treatment. They'll allow you to maintain optimum oral health well after your treatment is finished!


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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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