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Radiation Caries: Four Things You Need To Know

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

If you're undergoing radiation therapy, your oral health may be the last thing on your mind. However, it may surprise you to learn that radiation can cause several side-effects inside your mouth, including radiation caries, a type of rampant tooth decay that occurs following treatment. Dental caries, also known as tooth decay, lead to cavities (deep caries). This decay can have serious effects on your oral health, but you can easily keep it under control with your dental professional's help. Here are four oral health questions you should have answered if you are undergoing radiation treatment.

1. What Are the Signs of Radiation Caries?

You may not find out that you have radiation caries in the early stages because symptoms are often not noticeable until they get more serious. 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, you begin to feel pain and sensitivity in the affected teeth. And because this type of decay is rampant and can spread between teeth, you may notice symptoms in more than one tooth.

2. What Causes Radiation Caries?

Caries form when bacteria-filled plaque accumulates on your teeth and produces acids that eat away at the teeth's surface. This process plays a significant role in the development of radiation caries, but, in this case, there is more to the story. According to the National Cancer Institute, radiation causes many changes inside your mouth that make you more susceptible to tooth decay.

Radiation damages your salivary glands and leads to xerostomia, also known as dry mouth, which has many additional effects other than making your mouth uncomfortably 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 that help keep your tooth enamel strong.

3. How Can Radiation Caries Be Prevented?

If you receive high-dose radiation treatment, you'll have an increased risk of developing caries. This makes it even more critical 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 clean between your teeth at least once a day. Suppose your gums are sore due to radiation therapy. In that case, your dental professional may recommend using an extra soft-bristled toothbrush that won't further irritate them.

Beyond daily brushing and interdental cleaning, it's crucial to control your dry mouth symptoms as well. There are lots of ways this can be done. Consider trying some of these home remedies:

  • Sip water throughout the day
  • Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate your salivary glands
  • Use 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.

4. How Do Dentists Treat Radiation Caries?

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

We know that you probably have much more than your oral health on your mind when you are undergoing radiation therapy. Take comfort knowing that with a good oral care routine and a little help from your dental professional, radiation caries doesn't have to be on your list of stressors. Your dental professional is there to point you in the right direction so you can focus on healing.


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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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