Mouth and teeth changes after cancer treatment

Many people experience teeth or mouth problems after cancer treatment. Radiation therapy to the head and neck, bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy can all cause mouth and teeth problems. 
Common oral (mouth) and dental (teeth) complications from cancer treatment include: 
  • Oral mucositis (inflamed mucous membranes in the mouth)
  • Dry mouth
  • Infection
  • Osteonecrosis (a disease that affects bones, including the jaw bone)
  • Dental problems, like cavities 
  • Change in taste
  • Pain
  • Trouble swallowing
Many of these problems disappear a while after the treatment finishes. Sometimes these problems can last for some time after treatment.
 
For example, having a dry mouth after radiotherapy can be a long-term problem. Sometimes problems develop after treatment has ended.
 

What medical help is available for mouth and teeth problems?

If you have mouth or teeth problems that are troubling you after your cancer treatment, always see you doctor or dentist.
 
Your doctor may prescribe pain medications if your mouth is very sore or antibiotics if you have an infection. He or she may also prescribe gels, mouthwashes or medicine to help with dry mouth symptoms.
 

How can I cope better with mouth and teeth problems?

Good mouth and teeth hygiene habits after treatment for cancer can help you avoid serious problems and infection. There are also ways that you can reduce or relieve the symptoms of a dry or sore mouth. 
 
Tips for good mouth care
  • Use an extra-soft toothbrush to clean your teeth, gums and tongue 
  • Visit your dentist regularly
  • Brush your teeth after every meal and at bedtime
  • Use mild toothpaste and alcohol-free mouthwashes
  • If your mouth is sore try to avoid irritating it further by avoiding citrus fruits and drinks 
  • Don’t drink alcoholic drinks
  • Avoid all tobacco products
  • Don’t use toothpicks
  • Avoid hot and spicy foods and sharp and crunchy foods that can scrape your mouth

Mouth care after radiation therapy

If you had radiation therapy to the head and neck, you should take extra precautions:
 
  • See a dentist every 4-8 weeks for the first 6 months – radiation therapy can cause teeth cavities. Radiation can also cause changes in the muscles and bones that open and close the mouth. The dentist will recommend treatments and exercises to prevent these complications from worsening.
     
  • Perform your mouth opening exercises regularly – You will have been shown some simple exercises to keep your mouth and jaw as flexible as possible. It is important to perform these exercises regularly. 

Dry mouth

If your mouth is dry, the following tips may help:
  • Drink or sip lots of water
  • Suck ice chips
  • Chew sugarless gum or suck on sugar-free sweets
  • Use a saliva substitute to help moisten your tongue and mouth

Trouble swallowing

  • Eat your favourite foods but soften them with sauces and gravies where possible.
  • Try eating soft, liquid foods like soups, milkshakes, custards, natural yoghurt. But vary them so you don’t get bored.
  • Chop up meat and vegetables finely for stews or casseroles.
  • Blend or liquidise cooked foods.
  • Eat small, frequent meals.
  • Drink at least 6 to 8 cups of fluid each day.
  • Eat slowly and chew your food well
  • Follow your speech therapist’s advice for any special eating techniques
Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015