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How Xerostomia Occurs During Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is more than a sense of understanding; it's just as important to focus on treatment. Chemo and radiation therapy are modern-day miracles, but even as these regimens save lives, they can take their toll on the patient. Xerostomia, more commonly know as "dry mouth," may sound relatively mild, but it can have negative effects on a patient's oral health. Fortunately, there are options for prevention and care.

How Likely Is Dry Mouth?

In most cases, radiation therapy shouldn't affect the oral cavity as long as adequate shielding is provided to prevent any oral complications. Nonetheless, the likelihood of a patient suffering from dry mouth – and how severe the case may be – depends on the patient's dental health prior to treatment. A patient with periodontal issues or significant decay, for example, is more likely to have problems afterward. And the more dentally disadvantaged they are – in regard to both their gums and tooth decay – the more likely problems such as dry mouth are after treatment begins.

Common Complications

Dry mouth can occur during or directly following therapy. This, according to the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, is known as "acute xerostomia." It can also set in up to a year later, and when it does, the symptoms tend to be permanent as explained by the Oral Cancer Foundation. This is "late xerostomia." And if you've received stem cells or marrow to which your body doesn't respond well, according to the Mayo Clinic, you may contract graft-versus-host disease. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) notes that this can cause dry mouth if the chemotherapy itself does not.

What Makes It Worse?

Dry mouth can also be exacerbated by other medications that cause xerostomia in the process of fighting the cancer. The chemotherapy can make saliva thicker, lessening its cleansing effect and giving you a familiar feeling of dryness in the mouth. There are many medications that cause dry mouth on their own, and that certainly can be compounded when you initially start breast cancer treatment.

What You Should Do First

Be sure to see your dentist prior to any chemotherapy or radiation therapy and let him or her know what's going on. For breast cancer, it is extremely important to undergo a dental clearance exam by a dentist; this should include having your teeth thoroughly cleaned for plaque and tartar. In addition, dental treatment is usually limited for significant periods of time after treatment, limiting what treatment you can undergo during and after chemotherapy. Any advanced dental problems should therefore be taken care of prior to cancer treatment.

You can ultimately help to relieve the symptoms of xerostomia at home by practicing good oral hygiene, which includes flossing and brushing to reduce complications from dry mouth. Colgate® Max Fresh® with Mini Breath Strips helps to keep your breath clean during this process, as dry mouth can lead to bad breath later on. Keep in mind this can be applied both during and after treatment to ensure protection against cavities if saliva flow continues to be affected.

With a proper dental screening prior to cancer treatment, good oral hygiene practices and a close watch on the preventive medications listed above, rest assured you can mitigate these oral side-effects of breast cancer treatment – allowing you to maintain optimum oral health well after this ordeal passes.

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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