Mouth care means keeping the teeth, gums, tongue and the rest of the mouth clean and healthy. There are several ways to keep your mouth healthy and to prevent mouth problems during and after cancer treatment. Studies have shown that mouth sores and infections are not as severe if you carefully follow a mouth care program.
Talk to your dentist
Chemotherapy or radiation therapy can increase the risk for infection or bleeding from dental work. Talk to your healthcare team about having your teeth cleaned and cavities repaired before treatment starts.
People receiving radiation therapy to the head and neck area are usually seen by a dentist about 2 weeks before radiation treatments begin. The dentist should do a full oral health exam and any preventive dental work needed. The dentist can also suggest ways to help prevent or manage mouth, teeth and jawbone problems caused by radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy to the head and neck area can increase the chance of developing cavities or tooth decay. Ask the dentist or hygienist about using a fluoride rinse or gel to help prevent tooth decay.
Have regular dental checkups after cancer treatment. Talk to the dentist about other ways to prevent tooth decay and to help take care of your teeth, gums and mouth.
Follow a mouth care program
Studies have shown that mouth sores and mouth infections are usually not as severe when people carefully follow a mouth care program during and after cancer treatment. A mouth care program should include the following measures.
Brush your teeth, tongue and gums after meals and before bedtime using a very soft (such as supersoft) toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Be gentle, especially if your mouth is sore or while you are having certain treatments. Soften the toothbrush bristles in warm water before use. Clean toothbrushes well after each use. Use a new toothbrush after a cold or a mouth infection. Replace the toothbrush every few months. Ask the healthcare team or dentist when it is safe to use a Waterpik or electric toothbrush.
Floss once each day to remove plaque. If gums bleed or hurt, avoid these areas, but gently floss other teeth. Follow your healthcare team’s advice about flossing.
Clean and rinse your mouth
The healthcare team will usually give instructions about how to clean and rinse your mouth. They will suggest what to use, how often to use it and when to use it (such as after meals and before bed). The type of mouth rinse you use may be based on the type of treatment you have, the taste of the rinse and what you prefer.
There are many different recipes for mouth rinses, so check with your healthcare team. Different cancer treatment centres may recommend different ingredients or different amounts of salt or baking soda. Some healthcare professionals may suggest that you rinse your mouth with plain water after using a mouth rinse. Avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol because these can dry and irritate the mouth.
Make a fresh supply of mouth rinse to use each day. Examples of mouth rinses include:
- Salt solution (normal saline) rinse: 5 mL (1 tsp) of salt in 250 mL (1 c) of water
- Baking soda rinse: 5 mL (1 tsp) of baking soda in 250 mL (1 c) of water
- Salt and baking soda rinse: 1.5 mL (1/4 tsp) of salt + 1.5 mL (1/4 tsp) of baking soda in 250 mL (1 c) of water
- Club soda rinse: canned or bottled club soda may be used. Let it go flat and use at room temperature when the mouth is sore.
General mouth care
Taking care of your mouth can prevent or reduce mouth problems during and after cancer treatment.
Keep dentures clean. Change denture solution daily or as often as needed.
Use a lip balm to keep your lips moist. The sun can make cold sores and dry lips worse, so try to limit exposure to the sun and use a lip balm with an SPF of 15 or higher.
Drink sips of water throughout the day. If your mouth is dry, use artificial saliva to help moisten the mouth. Your healthcare team can suggest or prescribe artificial saliva as needed.
Avoid acidic, spicy, salty, coarse or dry foods. Avoid foods that are either very hot or very cold.
Try to stop smoking or chewing tobacco.
Great progress has been made
Some cancers, such as thyroid and testicular, have survival rates of over 90%. Other cancers, such as pancreatic, brain and esophageal, continue to have very low survival rates.