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Radiation Side-Effects and Your Oral Health

If you’ve gone through or are about to go through treatment for cancer or other conditions, it can be challenging to determine radiation symptoms. You might be wondering: what does radiation do to your teeth? We’re here to outline how cancer and related therapies can affect your oral health, when to expect side-effects, and what you can do.

How Your Mouth Responds to Radiation

If radiation therapy is in your future, present, or past, there are some potential side-effects you can benefit from understanding, especially when it comes to your oral health. Radiation can affect your healthy cells in addition to cancerous cells, putting tissues in your mouth and related systems at risk for damage.

Additionally, cancer itself can cause oral problems, and the likelihood of this increases in cases where the cancer is located in your head, neck, or mouth. Radiation side-effects or cancer can be temporary or chronic and range in severity. They typically occur with treatment but may not appear until afterward.

Cancer and radiation treatment may increase your risk for:

  • Changes to your saliva production, including dry mouth (also known as xerostomia)
  • Sensitivity or discomfort in your mouth
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Changes to your sense of taste
  • Sores and peeling
  • Infection
  • Cavities
  • Gum disease
  • Jaw problems

Some of these symptoms may resolve on their own, especially if they occur during your course of radiation treatment or chemotherapy. Read below, and we’ll discuss more of your options to minimize these symptoms and the experts available to help.

Helpful tip: It’s a good idea to keep track of your side-effects to best inform your care providers and medical or dental professionals. It often helps to write these down, so you don’t forget when your visit comes.

When To See Your Professional

You should schedule visits with your dental professional before you have problems to help reduce associated risks. If you’re already experiencing oral side-effects from radiation or cancer, it’s still your best bet to schedule a visit as soon as possible.

The sooner you allow the pros to diagnose and treat any problems that occur, the less they’ll worsen, and the fewer related problems will develop. Treating or relieving side-effects is a common process known as palliative care.

Fortunately, there are various experts at your disposal for radiation-related side-effects:

  • Your cancer or radiation treatment team
  • Oncologists, some specializing in oral conditions
  • Your regular medical professional or primary care provider (PCP)
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
  • Periodontists
  • Other dental professionals

Important note: If you have unusual trouble breathing or swallowing, you should seek immediate medical care or call 911.

Prevention

Regardless of your radiation treatment or cancer stage, the power to help prevent oral conditions is in your hands. Your focus on a proper dental routine and diet can reduce your likelihood of developing oral side-effects from radiation therapy and cancer. It’s a good rule to remember that prevention is always a better option than treatment when possible.

Steps to help reduce the likelihood of oral side-effects from radiation may include:

  • Consume a balanced diet that includes nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables
  • Limit foods and drinks that are high in sugar or acid
  • Avoid alcohol, smoking, and tobacco products
  • Gently brush your teeth for two minutes twice daily using a soft-bristled toothbrush
  • Clean between your teeth once a day using floss, a flossing device, or an interdental cleaner
  • Rinse with antiseptic mouthrinse to keep your gums in healthy condition
  • If you have dry mouth, use over-the-counter dry mouth products as instructed on the packaging, drink plenty of water, or chew sugar-free gum to help promote saliva production
  • If you have limited jaw mobility, perform jaw exercises at home or ask your medical or dental professional for guidance on how to do them
  • Use a toothpaste with fluoride to help keep your teeth strong and ask your medical or dental professional if they recommend a prescription-strength toothpaste
  • Visit your dental professional frequently

Important note: In addition to seeing your dental professional more frequently than you would otherwise, you should examine your mouth regularly for signs of oral concerns. This will help you stay ahead of potential problems that can cause health issues associated with radiation, like an infection. Nobody knows your body as well as you do, so your insight is invaluable to communicate with your medical and dental team.

Keep in mind that it's never a bad time to pay special attention to your oral care routine and diet. You can find comfort that there are many professionals available to help navigate your side-effects and make you as comfortable as possible before and after radiation treatment. You've done a great job reading up on related oral health concerns and how they relate to your needs.

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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