Chemotherapy is a very common form of cancer treatment, well known to produce side effects such as hair loss. You may not know, however, that chemotherapy can also induce certain conditions inside the mouth. One you may develop is difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests some studies have actually reported rates of dysphagia as high as 94 percent in patients who receive radiation alongside chemotherapy.
If you develop dysphagia as a result of cancer treatment, your dentist can help you manage your symptoms with the following in mind:
Chemotherapy targets cancer cells, but your body's healthy cells are affected by this treatment, too. This damage to your healthy cells may lead to mucositis, or the inflammation and ulceration of the insides of your cheeks, as well as thickened saliva – both of which make swallowing more difficult, according to the National Cancer Institute.
If you develop dysphagia as a result of chemotherapy, you'll typically experience pain or a heightened gag reflex when you swallow. Once you've swallowed your food, you may even feel like it's stuck in the back of your throat. Mayo Clinic suggests some people with this condition are completely unable to swallow.
Dysphagia can lead to other symptoms, as well. Food or stomach acid may back up into your mouth, and you may feel the effects of heartburn more often than you have before. You might also notice yourself losing weight due to your swallowing difficulties, and the effect it can have on your diet. Of course, your doctor is sure to monitor this with you.
Dysphagia makes it hard for you to eat your favorite foods, but it's more than just an annoyance. Not being able to swallow can lead to more advanced health problems like dehydration and malnutrition. Another possible complication of dysphagia is aspiration, wherein you accidentally inhale your food or water, leading to lung complications in some cases. To avoid these problems, seek treatment for your dysphagia right away.
Rest assured your dentist can offer multiple treatments to help ease your symptoms. Treatments will vary based on the cause of your dysphagia, so your mouth will need to be examined so the dentist can determine which treatments are best. If mucositis is contributing to your dysphagia, for instance, he or she may recommend rinsing your mouth with a solution of baking soda and salt to help control the irritation. Your dentist may also suggest using a gentle mouthwash to help keep your already irritated tissues clean.
If thickened saliva is to blame, consider using artificial saliva while sipping water throughout the day to help keep your mouth moist. Saliva is your body's natural bacteria-cleanser, so be sure to avoid things that can make your mouth drier, such as caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.
Living with Dysphagia
Most patients will see their ability to swallow come back within three months of finishing chemotherapy, but until this happens, you'll need to make some lifestyle changes to manage your symptoms. Try to stick to foods that are soft and moist – bananas, yogurt, mashed potatoes, oatmeal and the like – as these types of foods are easier to swallow. Feel free to add gravies or sauces to firmer foods to make it easier to swallow in the same way. Ultimately, taking sips of water or other liquids while you eat can help to make it easier as well.
Dysphagia is a potential side-effect of chemotherapy, but with the help of your dentist, difficulty swallowing can be managed in even its most advanced states.