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The drugs used to fight cancer may potentially affect an oncology patient’s oral health. Chemotherapy mouth sores are a common side effect of treatment that can affect the lips and mucous membranes of the mouth. Drugs affect people in different ways, and there is no way to predict who will experience side effects, but knowing what to look out for and how to relieve discomfort may help you reduce chemotherapy’s impact on your oral health.

Chemotherapy and the Mouth

How can cancer drugs affect your mouth in the first place? According to the National Cancer Institute, since chemotherapy is designed to kill rapidly growing cells like cancer cells, it may cause changes in healthy cells, too. The cells that line the inside of your mouth and throat also grow rapidly, and the cancer drugs damage and inhibit these cells and make it difficult for them to heal. Additionally, chemotherapy disrupts the healthy balance of bacteria in the mouth. All these factors can lead to a combination of inflammation and sores called mucositis.

Mucositis causes burn-like sores that can form on the lips, cheeks, gums, tongue, under the tongue and on the roof of the mouth. You may see blood in your mouth and the tissue can appear red and shiny, says The Oral Cancer Foundation. Since mucous membranes line the entire digestive system, the sores can extend to the throat and oesophagus.

How to Manage Mouth Sore Discomfort

During treatment, your doctor can manage oral complications and suggest products to help alleviate the discomfort. A frequently recommended remedy is a mouthwash made of a custom-mixed solution that contains antibiotics, an antihistamine, an antifungal, an antacid and other ingredients your doctor may recommend to treat your oral mucositis. A pharmacist will blend your mouthwash based on your doctor’s prescription. Another type of mouthwash you may be able to mix yourself, with your doctor’s guidance, is a saltwater mouthwash. The Oral Cancer Foundation explains you can make a saltwater mouthwash by mixing 1 teaspoon of table salt with 1 quart of water.

Other things you can do at home are sucking on ice chips or ice pops, as the coolness may relieve mouth sore discomfort. Over-the-counter pain relievers may help, but take care to avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as they may increase your risk of bleeding, and speak with your doctor before taking any OTC medications.

Avoiding habits is just as key in eliminating mouth sore discomfort as any remedy you may take. Do not smoke, use a hard-bristled toothbrush, or eat spicy, hot or coarse foods, advises The Oral Cancer Foundation. All of these may aggravate your mouth sores.

Oral Care During Cancer Treatment

Good daily oral hygiene is key to keeping oral complications to a minimum. That should include brushing with a soft-bristled toothbrush and rinsing with an alcohol-free mouthwash. The Oral Cancer Foundation notes that you may have to up your brushing routine to every four hours to keep your mouth moist. The National Cancer Institute notes that the radiation treatment prescribed alongside chemotherapy may cause dry mouth and tooth decay, so it’s important to set up a rigorous home care routine.

Regular in-office preventive care may need to be deferred until after treatment because of the risk of infection, especially if your cancer drugs are administered through a semi-permanent IV device called a central venous catheter (CVC), notes The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences. Check with your oncologist before heading to the dentist for your check-up and cleaning.

Although chemotherapy mouth sores are common, knowing what to expect and how to cope can make all the difference. Your team of health professionals will support you in your journey to a cancer-free future!