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Mouth Dryness is one of the most common complaints that patients undergoing cancer treatment have. It can be very difficult to manage this condition, however, proper intervention at the right time will go a long way in minimizing its occurrence.

Dryness of the mouth, or Xerostomia, is very common in patients undergoing cancer treatment. Studies have found that nearly all patients experience some degree of mouth dryness during the treatment of head and neck cancers [1].

While this dryness of the mouth is seen most commonly in patients undergoing radiation, a lot of drugs used in the treatment of cancer also cause dryness of the mouth as a side effect. This is why patients who are undergoing both chemotherapy and radiation are the ones most severely affected [2].

Xerostomia makes increases a patient's risk of:

  • Developing tooth decay
  • Opportunistic infection
  • A poor quality of life 
  • Difficulty chewing, talking, swallowing, speaking, and even sleeping [3]

All of this makes oral care during cancer treatment very important.

Patients can use the help of a number of medical and home remedies to try and alleviate their symptoms.  The aim of these remedies is to provide lubrication and moisture in the mouth while taking the measures required to prevent and fight infectious agents.

Medical Remedies For A Dry Mouth During Cancer Treatment

Perhaps one of the most widely studied drugs used in protecting the cellular structure of salivary glands from damage from radiation and chemotherapy drugs is Amifostine. A number of studies have found this drug to be effective in preventing the incidence of severe mouth dryness after cancer therapy [4].

There is a slight risk of this drug protecting the tumor from the therapy and thus its risk-reward ratio must be weighed individually for each patient.

The emergence of proton therapy as a means of targeted radiation therapy is also being viewed as a means of preventing dryness of the mouth and thus reducing the need for enhanced oral care during treatment by patients. Proton therapy promises to be able to provide a strong enough dose to destroy the tumor but minimizes the side effects in the surrounding unaffected structures [5].

The above two mentioned therapies are used for the prevention of mouth dryness, however. If that has already occurred then other treatment options are also available to help patients be more comfortable. Pilocarpine is the drug of choice when it comes to salivary stimulants and is also well tolerated by patients undergoing cancer treatment [6].

Cevimeline is also widely used for increasing the salivary stimulation from the salivary glands. There is a small caveat with regard to the use of these drugs. They are only effective if there is some amount of residual function remaining in the salivary glands, or otherwise they will not make any difference to cancer patients.

Home Remedies For A Dry Mouth During Cancer Treatment

Patients who are suffering from severe dryness of the mouth after cancer therapy are advised to use salivary substitutes that are available over the counter. These products are designed to help lubricate and moisten the mouth but do not contain any of the protective properties of real saliva. Still, they have been found to make patients more comfortable.

If patients want something even simpler then they can simply sip small amounts of water on a regular basis to keep their mouth from drying up [7].

There are also studies that have found dry mouth ointments and gels containing

  • Olive oil
  • Betaine
  • Xylitol

to be very effective in removing the symptoms associated with dry mouth [8].

Citric and slightly acidic beverages are known to increase the amount of salivation and can be a useful home remedy for dry mouth that patients can follow. Care should be taken, however, to not overdo the use of these drinks because they can cause erosion of the enamel [9].

The very act of chewing itself also stimulates salivary production if there is any functional salivary gland tissue remaining, therefore, patients are encouraged to use sugar-free chewing gum and chew vigorously to simulate their glands and keep them functional.

A mouth guard on which the patients can keep gnawing has also been found to help reduce the symptoms of severe mouth dryness due to oral cancer.  [10].

Additional Measures

Apart from these measures, oral care during cancer treatment is very important in reducing the after effects of mouth dryness. Your dentist will probably advise the use of a high concentration fluoride gel on a daily basis, perform a professional cleaning frequently (maybe even once a month) and aim to prevent any dental problems from occurring at all.

Of course, knowing how to take care of your mouth and teeth during cancer treatment is very important and you should talk to your dentist about that as well.

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