When undergoing radiation treatment for cancer, there are some lesser-known side-effects you should be aware of. Oral problems, in particular, are a common result of radiation treatment for cancer of the head and neck, and you should keep a close eye on these conditions just as you would other physical symptoms.
Some radiation side-effects can even cause your treatment to delay or stop altogether. Here's what to watch for and what you can do to prevent these complications.
How the Mouth Responds
Because radiation affects healthy cells in addition to cancerous ones, your teeth, gums, jaw bones, salivary glands and lining of your mouth are at similar risk for problems during a treatment like chemotherapy. These radiation side-effects can include dry mouth, oral sores, tooth decay, jaw stiffness, loss of taste, cavities, infections and even physiological changes to the jawbone. Some will disappear after you've finished your treatment, whereas others may not go away as quickly when radiation treatment ends. Loss of taste, for example, may subside more quickly than tooth decay – which needs your help to get back under control as you resume your normal diet.
Keep in mind side-effects may not cause acute pain, but they can make it difficult to eat, speak or swallow. If your symptoms are this advanced, treatment may decrease or, in some cases, need to be canceled until you're better.
When (and Why) to See Your Dentist
This is no doubt a challenging time, but visiting your dentist is just as important as seeing your primary doctor. In fact, some of the more serious mouth problems caused by radiation can be prevented as long as you make a point to see your dentist before you start treatment (at least two weeks prior is best) and continue your checkups during and afterward. Your dentist will identify and treat any problems you're experiencing, show you how to prevent or manage them, watch for any changes in your mouth and teach you various jaw exercises to minimize the lingering stiffness.
At home, take a look inside your mouth every day to check for unusual mouth sores and other abnormalities that should be brought to your dentist's attention.
Hints Along the Way
To keep your oral cavity in shape, put extra effort into small elements of daily behavior. Make sure you're getting enough vitamin D and calcium during the day by taking in these nutrients through milk, cheese, fruit juices, fortified cereals or supplements that, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, can strengthen your jaw and teeth. Though, you'll want to check with your doctor before consuming any supplements.
Drink cold water to keep your mouth moist and soothed while preventing dehydration. And just like you would otherwise, take special care of your teeth and gums by brushing and flossing gently. Follow up by rinsing with a mouthwash that won't irritate your mouth, such as Colgate® Peroxyl® Mouth Sore Rinse, whose lack of alcohol allows you to heal your mouth irritations. Also, avoid foods that are too hot, cold, spicy, acidic or crunchy – all of which can cause irritation if you're prone to tooth sensitivity during a cancer treatment cycle.
Your oral health is vital to your overall health when receiving radiation treatment, so make it a top priority. Schedule a dentist appointment before you start your treatment (if you haven't yet, book one right away), so that you and your dentist can work together on a dental care plan that keeps you and your mouth healthy and complication-free.