Dry mouth during cancer treatment
Chemotherapy - dry mouth; Radiation therapy - dry mouth; Transplant - dry mouth; Transplantation - dry mouth
What to Expect
Symptoms of dry mouth include:
- Mouth sores
- Thick and stringy saliva
- Cuts or cracks in your lips, or at the corners of your mouth
- Your dentures may no longer fit well, causing sores on the gums
- Difficulty swallowing or talking
- Loss of your sense of taste
- Soreness or pain in the tongue and mouth
- Cavities (dental caries)
- Gum disease
Take Care of Your Mouth
Not caring for your mouth during cancer treatment can lead to an increase in bacteria in your mouth. The bacteria can cause infection in your mouth, which can spread to other parts of your body.
- Brush your teeth and gums 2 to 3 times a day for 2 to 3 minutes each time.
- Use a toothbrush with soft bristles.
- Use toothpaste with fluoride.
- Let your toothbrush air dry between brushings.
- If toothpaste makes your mouth sore, brush with a solution of 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of salt mixed with 4 cups (1 liter) of water. Pour a small amount into a clean cup to dip your toothbrush into each time you brush.
- Floss gently once a day.
Rinse your mouth 5 or 6 times a day for 1 to 2 minutes each time. Use one of the following solutions when you rinse:
- One teaspoon (5 grams) of salt in 4 cups (1 liter) of water
- One teaspoon (5 grams) of baking soda in 8 ounces (240 milliliters) of water
- Half teaspoon (2.5 grams) salt and 2 tablespoons (30 grams) baking soda in 4 cups (1 liter) of water
DO NOT use mouth rinses that have alcohol in them. You may use an antibacterial rinse 2 to 4 times a day for gum disease.
Other tips for taking care of your mouth include:
- Avoiding foods or drinks that have a lot of sugar in them that may cause tooth decay
- Using lip care products to keep your lips from getting dry and cracking
- Sipping water to ease mouth dryness
- Eating sugar-free candy or chewing sugar-free gum
Talk with your dentist about:
- Solutions to replace minerals in your teeth
- Saliva substitutes
- Drugs that help your salivary glands make more saliva
You need to eat enough protein and calories to keep your weight up. Ask your health care provider about liquid food supplements that can help you meet your caloric needs and keep up your strength.
To make eating easier:
- Choose foods that you like.
- Eat foods with gravy, broth, or sauce to make them easier to chew and swallow.
- Eat small meals and eat more often.
- Cut your food into small pieces to make it easier to chew.
- Ask your doctor or dentist if artificial saliva might help you.
Drink 8 to 12 cups (2 to 3 liters) of liquid each day (not including coffee, tea, or other drinks that have caffeine).
- Drink liquids with your meals.
- Sip cool drinks during the day.
- Keep a glass of water next to your bed at night. Drink when you get up to use the bathroom or other times you wake up.
DO NOT drink alcohol or beverages that contain alcohol. They will bother your throat.
Avoid foods that are very spicy, that contain a lot of acid, or that are very hot or very cold.
If pills are hard to swallow, ask your provider if it is OK to crush your pills. (Some pills do not work if they are crushed.) If it is OK, crush them up and add them to some ice cream or another soft food.
Majithia N, Hallemeier CL, Loprinzi CL. Oral complications. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 40.
National Cancer Institute website. Chemotherapy and you: support for people with cancer.
National Cancer Institute website. Mouth and throat problems during cancer treatment.
National Cancer Institute website. Oral complications of chemotherapy and head/neck radiation.
Last reviewed on: 2/6/2020
Reviewed by: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.