“When I started chemo, oral care was the furthest thing from my mind. It never dawned on me the impact the treatment would have on my mouth. The impact became very clear very quickly!”
Barb, cancer survivor
As a registered dental hygienist for over 20 years with additional training in a specialized field called dental oncology, this is a story I’ve heard far too often. And of course, after receiving the news, “You have cancer,” who would be thinking about their mouth? That is until the side effects begin.
Cancer treatments can cause several types of oral complications that are more than just a comfort issue. Oral side effects can potentially increase infection risks, reduce nutrition intake and compromise treatment outcomes. They can also contribute to added financial stress and impact quality-of-life many years after treatments are complete.
But there is good news! Taking simple steps to protect your mouth during treatments can minimize or prevent some of these issues.
Dry mouth is one of the most common complaints with chemotherapy and radiation to the head and neck region. Saliva contains protective agents to prevent tooth decay and infection, assist in eating and swallowing and taste. A dry mouth can make you more susceptible to developing mouth sores (also known as oral mucositis or OM). OM can range from a mild tenderness of the tissue to large painful ulcerations that pose a risk for infection.
Don’t wait until your mouth feels dry. Take steps early in the treatment process to prevent dry mouth with over-the counter or prescription oral moisturizers and salivary substitutes.
- Take oral hygiene seriously
Thorough, but gentle, plaque removal from teeth and gum tissue is vital to preventing oral complications. The bacteria that make up dental plaque can lead to tooth decay, gum disease, inflammation, pain and infection. A clean mouth reduces the bacterial burden on the body which is especially important when the immune system is weakened with low blood counts.
Not all oral care products are created equal. Some are designed to mask symptoms of oral side effects while containing ingredients that are acidic and damaging to tooth structure. Others contain irritating detergents or chemicals that can be harsh to the tissue and encourage mouth sores. Consult with your dental professional for recommendations on safe oral care products that relieve symptoms while protecting the long-term health of your teeth, gum tissue and jaw bone.
- Be your biggest oral health advocate
Medical and dental professionals can have vast differences in perspectives and training that may lead to a disconnect in communication. Inform your oncology team if you have concerns in your mouth and make sure your dental providers are aware of your medical condition. Seek out dental providers who have additional training in Dental Oncology. When possible, pursue dental care prior to the start of treatments to reduce risks for problems in your mouth.
Protect your teeth and gums to protect the rest of your body. Making oral health a priority can reduce complications and improve quality-of-life during and after treatments for cancer.
Head and Neck Radiation Treatment and Your Mouth
Chemotherapy and Your Mouth
Three Good Reasons To See a Dentist BEFORE Cancer Treatment
Jill Meyer-Lippert is a practicing Registered Dental Hygienist in Wisconsin with additional training in Dental Oncology and a certificate in Oncology Management. She is the founder of Side Effect Support LLC. www.sideeffectsupport.com
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