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What is Palliative Dental Care?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Palliative care, also known as supportive care, helps people with serious illnesses feel more comfortable. Palliative care can help relieve pain and treat side effects as people go through disease treatment or hospice care at the end of life. Palliative dental care can be crucial for patients fighting cancer or other diseases because they can have unique and troublesome dental issues. Read more about palliative dental care so you can prepare for a loved one who may need it someday.

The Role of Supportive Care in Dentistry

Unfortunately, people receiving treatment for cancer or other serious illnesses may experience unpleasant or painful side effects. Dentists and dental hygienists treat these side effects to relieve this discomfort and anxiety during an already stressful time. Palliative care physicians can refer a family to a dentist, or the patient's dentist may create a new care plan that supplements other palliative care treatments.

When Palliative Dental Care May Help

According to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, many oral health problems can affect patients with serious illnesses. These are the typical side effects during cancer treatment that palliative dentistry can help with:

  • Dry mouth
  • Mouth sores or inflammation
  • Candidiasis or oral thrush
  • Severe tooth decay

According to The Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF), constant dry mouth is a common side effect of radiation therapies. More than 400 medications may cause dry mouth and up to 40 percent of patients undergoing chemotherapy report mouth sores and inflammation. This side effect is called mucositis, and it can interfere with eating, swallowing, and talking comfortably.

Cancer patients or people with immune disorders may develop candidiasis, also known as oral thrush. Oral thrush can make eating and drinking uncomfortable because of itching and burning sensations.

Lastly, people with severe or terminal illnesses may be more susceptible to tooth decay. For example, patients undergoing radiation therapy can develop what is called radiation caries. If not treated quickly, these cavities can lead to tooth abscesses. These side effects and dental issues may need special or more frequent treatment from a dentist and dental hygienist.

Supportive Dental Care Procedures

Palliative treatment, including dental care, focuses on managing the symptoms of these side effects and issues to keep palliative patients comfortable. The dentist can recommend a particular dental care plan after examining and talking with you or your loved one's healthcare team. Some of the palliative dental care treatments can include:

  • More frequent checkups and preventive care
  • Recommendations of mouthrinse for dry mouth
  • Antibiotics for mouth sores
  • Anti-fungal medications for oral thrush

Along with these treatments, the dentist may suggest drinking more water or eating a bland, soft diet to relieve dry mouth and relieve discomfort from mouth sores.

Dental restorations such as fillings or crowns may be required for patients who have developed cavities. In cases of advanced decay where an abscess has formed, the dentist may remove the tooth.

Palliative dental care can help relieve the pain and discomfort from the side effects of cancer treatments and other ailments. With palliative care, patients can typically eat, drink, and talk more comfortably. If your loved one is considering palliative care with hospice or with their doctors, speak to their dentist about maintaining their oral health too.


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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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