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Chemotherapy and Your Oral Health

Oral Side Effects of Chemotherapy Can Be Prevented and Treated


Updated September 17, 2009



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Chemotherapy kills or slows breast cancer by interfering with cell growth processes in all of your rapidly growing cells. Cancer cells grow at an uncontrolled rate, even faster than healthy cells in your body -- hair, nails, skin, blood, and mucus membranes -- that are supposed to grow quickly. Your mouth and digestive system are made of cells that normally renew themselves at a fairly swift pace, and this makes them susceptible to temporary damage by chemotherapy. If you work with your dentist and oncologist to prevent and treat oral side effects, you will give yourself a better chance at getting through cancer treatments smoothly with a better quality of life.

Oral Side Effects of Chemotherapy

You may not experience all of these side effects, but many patients may have some of these problems during chemotherapy for breast cancer. If you do develop an oral problem during treatment, visit your dentist or consult your oncologist and get help.

Reasons to Get Help With Oral Side Effects

Perhaps having some mouth discomfort doesn't seem like a big deal when compared to just getting rid of the cancer, but there may be times when oral side effects can get in the way of your cancer treatments. In fact, if you are having significant oral problems, your oncologist may have to slow down or stop your treatments. If you don't get help with oral side effects from chemotherapy, you may develop other conditions as a result. Those conditions may include:
  • Dehydration
  • Loss or distortion of sense of taste
  • Malnutrition and weight loss

Maintaining Good Oral Health During Chemotherapy

There are some easy ways to prevent and cope with the oral side effects of chemotherapy. Taking good care of your mouth will help you feel better, since good dental health affects your overall health. Try these tips:
  • Use a soft toothbrush
  • Brush your teeth and gums after each meal
  • Use mild or unflavored toothpaste with fluoride
  • Choose alcohol-free mouthwash
  • Floss gently to avoid gum irritation
  • Rinse your mouth well after brushing
  • Keep your toothbrush clean and dry between uses
  • Apply lip salve or balm to keep your lips moist and crack-free

When to Get Help From Your Doctor or Dentist

You should keep up a good dental care routine before, during and after cancer treatment. It's a good idea to prevent oral complications from chemotherapy, but sometimes they can't be avoided. Getting professional help sooner, rather than later, is your best strategy. Here's when to call in the experts:
  • Red or ulcerated sores anywhere inside your mouth
  • Oral pain that won't go away
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive bleeding of gums or oral tissues
  • Problems with breathing
  • Pain during eating

Happy Mouth, Easier Journey

You can take charge of your oral health during treatment by being particular about your diet, staying well-hydrated, and rinsing your mouth regularly to reduce bacteria. Keep track of any changes inside your mouth and be sure to let your dentist and doctor know anytime a problem develops. Remember that your dental health affects your general health, so it's well worth keeping your mouth happy during breast cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy and Your Mouth. Pamphlet, PDF format. National Institutes of Health. Reprinted July 2008.

Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ). National Cancer Institute. Last Modified: 11/06/2008.

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