Palliative care, also called supportive care, is used to help patients with serious illnesses — like terminal cancer or advanced dementia — feel more comfortable. The goal of palliative care is to relieve pain and other symptoms, but it may be offered at the same time as treatments that aim to cure a disease, explains the National Institutes of Health. Dental treatments are sometimes an important part of supportive care.
The Role of Supportive Care in Dentistry
Patients who are receiving treatment for cancer or other serious illnesses may experience unpleasant or painful oral side effects. These side effects may increase patients' anxiety at an already difficult time. Dentists and dental hygienists try to manage oral effects to help keep patients from experiencing unnecessary pain or stress.
When Palliative Dental Care May Help
There are many oral health problems that can affect patients with serious illnesses, and dental palliative care may be offered to help offset them. Constant dry mouth, for example, may occur as a side effect of the radiation therapy or chemotherapy used to treat cancer, explains The Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF). Many other treatments and some medications may lead to dry mouth. In fact, there are more than 400 common drugs that can cause constant dry mouth, reports the OCF.
Sores and inflammation inside the mouth are a common side effect of chemotherapy, affecting up to 40 percent of patients. This side effect, known as mucositis, can interfere with eating, swallowing and talking.
People with compromised immune systems, including cancer patients or people with HIV, may develop candidiasis, or a yeast infection in the mouth. People with this infection may experience burning or itching in their mouths, or they may have trouble swallowing. These symptoms can making eating and drinking difficult, which puts patients at risk for malnutrition and dehydration.
Anyone can get cavities, but people with serious illnesses may be more susceptible to tooth decay. For example, people who are receiving radiation therapy may develop rampant tooth decay known as radiation caries. These cavities could lead to toothaches or even tooth abscesses.
Supportive Dental Care Procedures
Supportive care is focused on managing symptoms and keeping patients comfortable. Appropriate procedures will vary from one patient to another based on their symptoms. A dentist can recommend an appropriate dental care plan after examining a patient and talking with their doctors or health care team.
In some cases, dentists may suggest home remedies that may provide patients with some relief. For patients with mucositis, these suggestions may include drinking more water or eating a bland, soft diet. Patients with dry mouth may be advised to sip water throughout the day or use an over-the-counter saliva substitute.
Dentists may also recommend prescription medications if necessary. Pain medications may be useful for patients with mucositis, for example, and anti-fungal medications may help resolve cases of oral thrush.
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 tooth may need to be removed.
Palliative dental care can help relieve the oral side effects of a serious disease, allowing patients to eat, drink and speak as comfortably as possible. If your loved one has a serious illness and is undergoing treatment, talk to their dentist about managing oral symptoms.