When Cancer Treatments Cause Mouth Sores


Mouth sores can be a common and bothersome side effect of chemotherapy and some radiation treatments.

Sores (or ulcers) usually appear 5 to 10 days after chemotherapy begins or a couple of weeks after radiation treatments start. The sores can be very painful. Getting proper nutrition may become a concern because eating can make the pain worse. It can also make it hard to talk and swallow.

Why do sores occur?
Cells in the lining of the mouth normally divide, grow, and turn over quickly. These cells can be easily damaged by chemo and radiation. When the cells are damaged, the mouth becomes inflamed and sores develop. This is called mucositis. Then bacteria and fungi can infect the sores and make them worse.

How serious are mouth sores?
Sores make it hard for you to eat and drink, so they can keep you from getting the nutrition you need. If sores are severe, cancer therapy may have to be stopped for a while. For some people, sores may not heal until 2 to 4 weeks after treatment ends. Sometimes people need to go into the hospital to manage pain and prevent dehydration.

What to do?
It’s a good idea to take extra care of your mouth during cancer treatment. The American Dental Association recommends that you:

•See your dentist before you get treatment, especially if you have gum disease or are having any dental pain.
•Continue to brush your teeth twice a day and floss once a day. If this becomes too painful, ask your dentist or doctor about swabs that can be used to clean your teeth.
•Rinse your mouth several times a day with a solution of baking soda and salt. Use 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/8 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of warm water.
•Try to stop smoking. Smoking will make mouth sores worse and delay healing.
During cancer treatment, your doctor may recommend that you:

•Suck on ice chips and swish them around in your mouth just before and while you are getting chemotherapy. This can prevent some types of chemotherapy from reaching the mouth and reduce the chances of getting mouth sores.
•Use a rinse that contains a numbing medicine to relieve pain, or take pain medication for discomfort. Your doctor may prescribe other medications to help heal sores.
Other tips to help maintain good nutrition and lessen the pain of eating:

•Eat soft foods that are easy to chew and swallow. Or puree vegetables, fruits, and meats. Warm (not-too-hot or -cold) foods may be less painful.
•Avoid foods that can be irritating (citrus, spicy, acidic, or salty foods, and coarse, dry foods). Coffee and alcohol can also be irritating. Try using a straw to bypass your sore mouth.

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