Oral health complications are common in cancer patients. Almost all patients receiving head and neck radiation are affected. Additionally, about 75% of blood and bone marrow transplant recipients and 40% of patients receiving chemotherapy experience them during therapy or after cancer treatment ends. Side effects can include:
- Mucositis (inflammation of the mucous membranes in the mouth)
- Mouth Infections (which can spread throughout the body through the bloodstream)
- Changes in children's dental growth and development
- Malnutrition and dehydration (caused by inability to eat and drink)
- Tooth decay and gum disease
- Taste changes
- Dry mouth
To mitigate these complications, it is important for cancer patients to work with their oncologist and dentist to develop an oral care plan. Ideally, patients should schedule an oral evaluation with their dentist before cancer treatment begins to reduce and limit severe oral complications, identify and treat existing infections, and develop an individualized oral hygiene plan. Your dentist can work with you to prevent, detect and care for complications during your cancer treatment. He or she can provide topical anesthetics or analgesics as appropriate for oral pain. Patients are advised to:
- Gently brush teeth, gums and tongue with an extra soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste, softening the bristles in warm water first
- Avoid mouthwashes containing alcohol
- Use fluoride gel as instructed
- Rinse the mouth several times a day with a rinse prescribed by your physician or dentist; if you have not been prescribed a rinse, a baking soda and salt solution is a helpful alternative (1 cup warm water, ¼ teaspoon baking soda and 1/8 teaspoon salt)
- Avoid sugar-laden candy, gum and soda; avoid tobacco products, alcohol, and spicy or acidic foods
Radiation and chemotherapy frequently cause dry mouth, which can make it difficult to taste, chew, swallow, and speak. Without enough saliva, you can develop tooth decay or other infections in the mouth. To treat dry mouth, sip water frequently, suck ice chips or sugar-free candy, chew sugar-free gum, and, if recommended by your dentist, use a saliva substitute spray or gel or a prescribed saliva stimulant.
For additional information about oral complications of cancer and its treatment, and ways to guard against these complications, visit the National Cancer Institute's website. Members of the Commonwealth Indemnity Plan undergoing cancer treatment will receive oral care recommendations and educational materials by mail in a pilot program sponsored by the GIC and the Massachusetts Employees Fund in cooperation with Delta Dental of Massachusetts and UniCare.
This information provided by the Group Insurance Commission.