Chemotherapy and Oral Health - Because Cancer Sucks

Chemotherapy and Oral Health - Because Cancer Sucks

The fact that most of us have known someone with cancer is a sad reality. Unfortunately, here at HealthyGrid, some of us are no strangers to having loved ones with this terrible disease. While science works tirelessly to find a cure and has made great strides in recent years, chemotherapy and radiation are still the go-to treatments, for now.

The first thing that tends to come to people's minds when they think of chemotherapy is the side effects. Nausea is the main side effect that most people are aware of, along with hair loss. However, there are a large number of potential side effects of cancer treatment. A significant area impacted is often oral health.

While working against harmful cancer cells, chemotherapy and radiation can also potentially upset the healthy balance of bacteria in the mouth, which can lead to dry mouth, sores, infections, and tooth decay. Because many who receive chemotherapy and radiation are considered immunocompromised, or having a weaker immune system due to their treatment, the risk of infection is even greater. Sometimes, these complications are so severe that treatment doses need to be reduced, or even stopped temporarily.


How does cancer treatment upset healthy bacteria balance?

According to, cancer treatments slow or stop the growth of fast growing cells, which cancer cells are. However, normal cells in the lining of the mouth and salivary glands also grow quickly, so cancer treatment may stop these cells from growing. This may lead to several complications.


What are the potential oral side effects of cancer treatment?

According to the National Institutes of Health:

  • Dry mouth
  • Painful mouth and gums
  • Infection
  • Burning, peeling, or swelling tongue
  • Change in taste


How are these side effects managed?

Preventative care before starting cancer treatment is ideal. This means meeting with a dentist and taking care of any existing oral health issues as much as possible. When treatment has started, taking care of any issues as they arise will help make complications less severe. A few things that can be done to keep a moist, and therefore healthier mouth, also according to the National Institutes of Health:

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Use sugar-free hard candy and/or gum, to stimulate saliva flow
  • Suck on ice chips
  • Use a saliva substitute
  • Avoid mouthwashes with alcohol in them
  • Keep up with brushing and flossing (use a very soft-bristled toothbrush)

After treatment has ended, keeping teeth and gums healthy and managing any long-term side effects are the goals for a healthy mouth, and consequently, a healthy you or loved one who is kicking cancer’s butt.

Sources: - “Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®)–Patient Version was originally published by the National Cancer Institute.”