Seeing your dentist prior to starting cancer treatment to make sure your mouth is as healthy as possible can provide important information to the rest of your health care team, help your quality of life and improve your progress toward better health.
The American Dental Association reports that of the 1.4 million people receiving treatment for cancer, about 400,000, will experience oral complications.
It is likely that aggressive cancer treatment will have toxic effects on normal cells as well as cancer cells. The mouth is one area that is particularly prone to damage. Most patients will experience some type of oral complication, and while most are manageable, they can sometimes become severe enough to stop treatment.
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Here are some oral complications that can occur during cancer treatment:
a. Dry mouth and mouth sores. Radiation and chemotherapy treatment can cause damage to the salivary glands and cause dental problems. Saliva is your body’s way of maintaining a balance of bacteria in the mouth therefore protecting against infections and tooth decay.
Without enough saliva, bacteria can grow too quickly and cause infections and mouth sores. These sores can be a serious problem because they can cause pain and infections, making it difficult to eat, drink or swallow.
b. Sensitive gums. Chemotherapy can cause tenderness, bleeding and inflammation of the gums.
c. Jaw aches and pains. Radiation near the head and neck can cause jaw pain or stiffness.
d. Functional disabilities. Impaired ability to eat, taste, swallow and speak due to mucositis or dry mouth can also compromise nutrition. In addition, radiation therapy may increase your risk for rampant dental decay if the changes in saliva production persist.
Ways to protect your mouth during treatment include:
a. Brushing your teeth gently and often, after every meal if possible, and using alcohol-free mouthwash.
b. Rinse your mouth with water frequently, and suck on ice chips or sugar free popsicles.
c. Floss frequently.
d. Eat well and stay hydrated.
e. See your dentist one month prior to the beginning of cancer treatment. This will allow enough time to take care of any pressing procedures required prior to treatment and ensure there are no infections present that may cause unnecessary complications. Oral care is a crucial component of cancer therapy. Patients will also benefit from a three to four month recall along with the application of fluoride during cancer treatment.
Be informed. Speak with your health care team about any changes you may experience, and partner with them for your specific care and treatment.
Optimal management by the oncology team requires assessment, communication and interaction among the health care team (including your dentist) during all stages of cancer therapy.
You may want to ask: How will my treatment affect my dental health? What information do I need to provide my dentist? Will my treatment have a long-term impact on my dental health? If I have a dental problem during treatment, can the problem be addressed right away?